#ChoosetoChallenge: Four Leading Women of Colour on Campus Consider the IWD 2021 Campaign Theme

In anticipation of International Women’s Day, Kavya Sharma (Chair of the Multifaith Network), Khadija Meghrawi (Chair of the BAME Network), Theresa Awolesi (Chair of the Black Students’ Network and co-founder of PENGals) and Shamar Gunning (President of iFemSoc and co-founder of PENGals) came together last week for a powerful discussion on their experiences of advocacy and resistance on campus.

Kavya, Khadija, Theresa and Shamar began by discussing how they have chosen to challenge on campus and beyond. As women of colour in a predominantly white institution, platforming their voices is invaluable in advocating for marginalised students at the university. Theresa began with the powerful statement, ‘my existence is my resistance’. Through demanding respect on the medical board and taking up the space she deserves, her existence as a black woman makes a revolutionary impact. Shamar expanded on this by explaining the internal challenge she faces to counteract imposter syndrome. Khadija noted the importance of finding empowerment from oppressed identities, drawing on her experience as an Arab Muslim woman. She further described her focus on uplifting others in her work and decentring her own experience as much as possible. 

All these women found a deep source of solidarity from their family foundations. Kavya said that growing up surrounded by the women in her family inspired her to place kindness at the forefront of her actions and find power in being humble. For Theresa, her Nigerian culture provided a ‘fighting spirit’, allowing her to feel galvanised by the generations of women before who have stepped out from behind the man to get what they want. Khadija beautifully illustrated the importance of a social education amongst women which places value on emotion and the lived experience, something that can’t be formally taught.

When asked, ‘What assumptions or stereotypes do you usually experience in your position and how do you counteract them?’, Khadija described the persistent misconception of the oppressed, submissive Muslim woman. She explained how Muslim women are so often spoken for and not spoken to. She feels pressure to leave the ‘inconvenient’ parts of her identity out of her activism, but this is an entrenched problem within movements, not herself. Theresa described the stereotype of the ‘strong, black woman’ and how there is an intense pressure on black women to hide signs of weakness and always be working ten times harder. She emphasised the liberation she experiences being able to verbalise this with other black women through her journey to challenge internalised racism. This resonated with Kavya who described her ongoing struggle against internalised assumptions and how this has been particularly lonely within majority white spaces like the university. She also described the stereotypes she has faced within the Indian community of being ‘brown on the outside and white on the inside’. Shamar explained how she has been afraid to be perceived as an ‘angry black woman’ and has felt a need to police her emotions to be ‘palatable’. She has experienced assumptions from communities of colour as well for being involved in feminism, however this stems from a legitimate distrust of white feminism. 

When the conversation moved onto women in leadership positions, Khadija noted that not all such leaders are to be celebrated as their success may be to the detriment of less privileged women. She drew on a recent example to illustrate the vulnerability of women of colour in leadership and how their position can be used to further oppress their social group. Zara Mohammed, the first woman to be appointed leader of the Muslim Council, was featured on BBC’s Woman’s Hour only to be harassed from a place of hostility.  An open letter to the BBC has since been published on gal-dem. Shamar expanded on this by describing the terrifying anxiety these roles can induce, leaving women ‘completely battered and destroyed’. Theresa emphasised how tokenism can simply be an extension of white supremacy, used to galvanise support from a marginalised demographic but with an absence of actions which aid them.

While considering whether these leadership positions are accessible, the consensus was that marginalised people have had to create spaces for themselves without a blueprint. Kavya explained how so often it is not what you know but who you know and this perpetuates pre-existing power relations. Shamar crucially pointed out that for particularly oppressed groups, such as trans women of colour, their first priority is survival rather than getting into a boardroom. She and Kavya also spoke of the competitive element in gaining powerful positions which can result in the loss of solidarity amongst the groups that need it most. Khadija described the lack of acknowledgement of faith communities and how alienating it can be once you achieve success. She emphasised the inaccessibility of drinking culture and the refusal to consider the impact of prayer and Ramadan fasting for Muslims. The women all focused on the importance of having roots to support you and that for some marginalised people, no matter their ability or drive, they have not got the foundations to begin this journey.

Finally, Khadija asked the women what their culture or faith has taught them about being a woman and how they bring this to their work. Shamar began by explaining the traditions and presumptions which existed within the Intersectional Feminist Society when she took over as a President. This insight has allowed her to move the society away from its Western-centric focus and motivated her to create a safe platform that provides speakers with agency. Theresa furthered this as she spoke of identifying privilege and the levels to it which so often value Western attributes above all others. She also explained that although identifying as an ethnic minority might bring people together in the first place, the focus does not always have to be about struggle. Sometimes having a safe space to form connections and have fun can be just as uplifting and important. Kavya echoed the significance of learning from others and being as representative as possible. For Khadija it has been a journey of learning. She emphasised the dangers of performative activism and clout-chasing which has been exacerbated by the necessity of social media during the pandemic. She recognised that it is context-specific and sometimes social-media visibility is useful, but at other times there is groundwork required that can be more beneficial. 

Kavya, Khadija, Theresa and Shamar spoke with poise and power. They have shaken up campus feminism this year and every day they choose to challenge inequality to make the university environment more inclusive. Their insightful discussion can be found in full here

Words and artwork by Laura Cook.


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