Comment writer Hannah Lay argues that there is no magic answer to getting young people engaged in politicsWritten by Hannah Lay on 20th October 2018
Redbrick Meets: Women’s Officers
We spoke to the elected Women’s Officers at the Guild, Holly and Alif, about their upcoming plans for the year and the challenges they’ve already faced…
Thank you to you both for joining us and giving up your time to speak to us. We want to find out more about you both as individuals, your partnership in this role and the projects or obstacles you’re currently tackling.
First of all, please introduce yourselves and explain what life is like for you outside the Guild:
Alif: I’m Alif, co-Women’s Officer with Holly. We are both involved in local activism and we’ve been doing that for our whole uni careers. I study English and Philosophy and have just entered my final year.
Holly: I’m Holly, I’m also going into my final year of Philosophy. As Alif said, outside of our degree we spend most of our time in the Guild or involved in politics of some description.
So, how did you two meet and why did you decided to run for Women’s Officer together?
Holly: We met at Women and Non-Binary Association, where I ran for Chair of the committee and Alif ran for Black and Ethnic Minority Rep, and were both elected onto the committee for the last academic year.
Alif: We were also really good friends with the Women’s Officer last year, and she was really supportive during the whole process.
Holly: We had concerns with being able to do it all because of final year and stuff, so that’s why we decided to run together. We’re also just really good friends!
Alif: Exactly, we work together well.
“We’re also just really good friends!
It’s great to hear you guys feel like you work so well in a team and agree on so much. Have you ever disagreed on something to do with your role, if not, what would you do if for some reason you disagreed on a decision?
Alif: Well so far we haven’t disagreed on anything. We’ve got a very similar political background, but if something ever did come up, we would talk about it first and foremost. We would try and make a compromise. But honestly, I can’t see that happening. It definitely wouldn’t be a problem if it did.
Holly: Definitely. I also think it’s important that we liaise with all the other officers, especially gaining the input of the other liberation officers, as intersectionality is one of our manifesto points.
Alif: Also, we’ve been friends for long enough to feel totally comfortable to disagree with each other. It’d be totally fine. For example, if we are discussing something to do with race, Holly turns to me because she’s white and I’m not. It’s all about finding and respecting who knows what, and listening to each other.
As you mentioned, you are Part Time Officers, you both are volunteers. Did you go into this position knowing the amount of work that would be involved?
Holly: Because we were very close to the old Women’s Officer, and also both have committee experience, we are used to working in the Guild. We both had a relatively good idea about what would be involved and how much work it would be.
Alif: Also, we are both super passionate about the role, so are more than happy to put the work in!
Do you think that the Women’s Officer should be a full time position?
Holly: Absolutely, we are representing approximately half of campus!
Alif: It absolutely should be. It wouldn’t be out of the blue, as the Postgrad Officer was Part Time only two years ago. It is something we have discussed, it isn’t top of our priority list right now. We have a lot going on and we want to make sure we are sticking to our manifesto. But it is definitely something we are thinking about.
Term has only just started, but what sort of things have you had to deal with so far?
Alif: I think the biggest thing we are working on at the moment is Reclaim The Night, which we want to happen in the city centre. It’s so much work it’s almost overwhelming, but it’s so exciting, and we really feel like we can do this.
Holly: Exactly. We’ve also had another pretty major issue to tackle - the potential for a pro-life student group to be set up at the Guild of Students. As Women’s Officers, and very passionate protectors of the right to choose what happens to your body, this is something we are very concerned about.
Although they are sharing content on Facebook and organising events, as well as there clearly being a discussion that it will happen, can you confirm if the society is actually going ahead?
Holly: Well it is all up in the air at the moment. As with any student group, their proposal will go through the SGX, Student Groups Executive, which is a committee that makes decisions about new student groups. At the moment we can’t confirm it will go ahead, and there is currently no date set for the next SGX meeting.
“Section 2.5 says the Guild does not tolerate belittling or questioning over someone's pregnancy and in 2.8 it forbids intrusive comments about gender
Alif: To be clear, this group will be treated the same as any other student group. They will go through the same process as everyone else.
Holly: Exactly. Also, to voice our concerns, we have put together a document to give to the SGX, outlining reasons why the group would be harmful, quoting the Guild’s ‘Zero Tolerance Policy’. Hopefully that will be taken into consideration.
Can you explain why, as Women’s Officers, you do not want this group to go ahead as part of the Guild?
Holly: Well, as already mentioned the Guild has a ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy, parts of which really highlight why it shouldn't go ahead. For example Section 2.5 says the Guild does not tolerate belittling or questioning over someone's pregnancy and in 2.8 it forbids intrusive comments about gender. It’s very hard to see how a society like this, which is inherently gendered, is not going to violate that.
Alif: Absolutely. From the Facebook page we have seen them talk about encouraging a ‘culture of Life’ on campus. We’re worried that this means their events won’t simply be private discussions, but instead opportunities to impose whatever sexist attitudes they have across campus. This is not something we want. We don’t want people who can get pregnant, women or other, to feel like they are on a campus that is not safe for them, or that the Guild officially endorses ideologies that attempt to remove their autonomy.
Could one not argue that by stopping this, you’re just stifling freedom of speech?
Holly: That is of course an argument that has been raised. Freedom of speech is a value that we all uphold, but it has to be balanced with being free from harm within a Guild that is supposed to represent you. When you are looking at a group that has the potential to do a lot of harm, you really have to weigh up whether it is worth upholding freedom of speech. Therefore, we do not believe they should have a platform.
Alif: We aren’t saying that they cannot hold their own beliefs. Everyone is entitled to their own private opinion.
Holly: Yes exactly, we just don’t feel like this should have an official platform and be endorsed by a body that is meant to represent all of us.
So, what happens if you are pro-life? Doesn’t making a society give you the space to explore these ideas and meet like-minded people?
Holly: Yeah, for sure. That’s the great thing about having societies; you get to meet people who have views like yours. For example, political societies are able to debate things like current policies, and whilst certain policy has the ability to cause a great deal of harm, it is rarely debating a person’s right to bodily autonomy. We’re not stopping a group of pro-life people meeting up and talking about their views.
Alif: Just as we don’t want them to impose their views on us, we’re not going to try and impose ours onto them. It’s about the potential to cause harm, harm which could then be endorsed by a student’s union which is supposed to be protecting and representing all of us. This has the ability to make people feel unsafe on campus, especially considering the dangers groups such as this one have posed in the past.
“It’s about the potential to cause harm, harm which could then be endorsed by a student’s union which is supposed to be protecting and representing all of us
While a pro-life group would be new to our campus and to our uni, it is not new to our city or to the world... these groups campaign everywhere. Have you had experience with pro-life groups (unaffiliated with universities) and if so how has this created an expectation for what you believe the damage would be to students?
Holly: We’ve had a number of dealings with pro-life groups in Birmingham specifically, particularly through our activism with Women and Non-Binary Association. We’ve counter-protested things like the March for Life, and also a group called Abort67.
Alif: When Abort67 brought their campaign to Birmingham they used a lot of graphic imagery, including pictures of what was supposed to be an aborted foetus. People, including children walking past were of course visibly distressed by it. This is a recurring theme amongst lots of pro-life groups. It aims to cause disgust, shame and fear. So, we counter-protested angrily, and covered the sign with our bodies and our own signs. Our only aim was to stop them spreading lies about the nature of abortion and to protect the children walking by, but in response we have been called every name under the sun by pro-life activists.
Holly: It’s always been very misogynistic, and we’ve had several encounters with men who have said outrageous things to us. Most recently, a male protester told us that we were ‘irrational bitches,’ that we didn’t know what we were talking about. and that we should read the Bible. They also filmed us on several occasions, without our consent.
Alif: They bring in speakers from America, and if you look into it they are funded almost exclusively by rich American conservatives, which is frankly quite terrifying.
Holly: And another big concern, which has also been raised by the NUS in their guideline ‘Keeping Campuses Pro-Choice’, is that a lot of the time these groups are prone to not just bending the truth but outright lying. We’ve had a number of leaflets from pro-life groups that have literally just promoted lies. For example, they often claim that abortion is a dangerous, life-threatening procedure, but statistically abortions in the first and second trimester are safer than pregnancy and giving birth. 1.6% of abortions happen after this time and it’s in cases of extreme risk to the person who’s pregnant. Another myth is that foetuses feel a great deal of pain during the abortion process, but actually foetuses don’t feel pain until the 24th week of pregnancy. This is accepted by the Royal College of Obstetricians [and Gynaecologists], and as I already said, only a very small proportion of abortions happen after this time.
Alif: The fact of the matter is, people who can get pregnant are going to be negatively impacted by the misinformation spread by these kind of groups. And more widely, this kind of rhetoric has the potential to create a bigger culture of shame around abortion, when in fact abortion is essentially a form of healthcare. It is always going to happen, so even if the agendas of pro-life groups are realised, they will only be making it unsafe.
Holly: Exactly, we have to question to what extent are they protecting people as they claim? And also, in terms of how groups like this can impact campuses, we have attended a Guild endorsed event during which a high profile pro-life campaigner spoke. When we asked how she felt about survivors of sexual violence accessing abortion, she outright called them cowards. People can say that the group will be regulated by the Guild, but this was a Guild society event. So what’s to prevent an official pro-life group won’t say things like that?
“When we asked how she felt about survivors of sexual violence accessing abortion, she outright called them cowards
Alif: And who knows how many survivors of sexual assault and violence were in that crowd listening to her say those things and what that might have done. The possibility of harm is so great that we couldn’t stand by and not do anything.
How does this fit in with other universities? We know that there are universities that have ‘Students for Life’-style societies - how is this being allowed? Who’s helping them to set up?
Holly: We know that there are other unis such as Oxford and Bristol that have allowed these groups to set up. We are also aware of a group called the Alliance of Pro-life Students (APS) who support and provide resources for pro-life student groups. We understand that the group in question want to have speakers come in from the APS, and from the previous experience we’ve mentioned, we know that that could be seriously damaging.
Alif: I think there has been backlash from universities where they have tried to shut down pro-life groups in the past, but the NUS guidelines state it is perfectly legal to write pro-choice policy into student’s union policy. So, while there has been backlash at other universities, what we’re trying to do is essentially in line with an NUS-produced document. We are in the parameters of what we are allowed to do.
We’ve already talked a lot about the pro-life group and what you’re doing to combat this but that’s just one issue that you are tackling. Can you tell Redbrick what else this year holds for the Women’s Officers?
Holly: So a huge project of ours which Alif has already mentioned is Reclaim the Night. It’s something that Holly Campbell, who was the Women’s Officer before us, worked really hard to do on campus last year. It was really successful, and had about 150 people attend in the snow which was an amazing achievement. We’re hoping to take that to the city centre this year.
Alif: It’s a lot of work, it’s the ins and outs of which you don’t foresee unless you’re involved in it. So far it’s going really well and we’ve had a lot of support from the Guild for it. The campaigns team have been really great. So that’s our main project at the moment, but we are also super involved in Not On and trying to establish consent workshops as mandatory firstly for societies as per our manifesto, but ultimately for all students.
Holly and Alif can be contacted via their Part Time Officer Facebook page: Holly Battrick (Alif and Holly WO) or via their email address at: firstname.lastname@example.org. They also now have fortnightly contact hours on Fridays between 10:30-12:30 in the Malala Yousafzai meeting room, on the top floor of the Guild.