Universities need to get free from HeForShe and get to work

Friday 09-10-2015 - 09:25

This term, the UN Women’s campaign HeForShe, decided that what top universities needed was an enlightenment tour about gender equality, with tour bus included. 

This tour was called #GetFree. Universities certainly have a problem with institutional sexism and I do believe that a widescale feminist education programme for all genders is needed to tackle things such as the gender attainment gap, lad culture, sexual violence and so on. However, I'm not sure this is the best way to do this.

At the Women's Campaign, and NUS in general, we listen to students and students' unions, engaging and empowering them to campaign for changes they need for their educational communities. What use are big events pushed by external organisations that just fuel publicity for huge institutions, the very same institutions where we’re not seeing half the effort made to listen to students on campuses, stemming from the lack of institutional action to make their campuses safer and inclusive.

This tour was first brought to my attention when women’s officers from across the UK contacted me, because they felt pressured into hosting this event. We all shared similar concerns about the campaign, especially because we feared it would send out the message that the women's movement - Our movement for liberation - is invalid if we don't invite and allow men to take the lead. Not support us, but take the lead. Literally, the patriarchy. I thought that's what we were trying to get free from, I'm confused. Maybe the HeForShe version is nicer? I dunno.

There's a reason that a man who announces publicly he’s a feminist gets a thousand retweets and a woman that does gets online abuse. Does there need to be yet another women's organisation prioritising men's entitlement to space in women's liberation yet again? Personally I think that invoking this sort of huge saviour complex, a message that doesn't embed education about how systematic oppression and privilege works, is a bit irresponsible and destructive for intersectional, grassroots feminism.

If you want to talk about being allies, that makes sense.  Sure, let's discuss how to create liberated spaces for marginalised people without centring all discussions around the feelings of  allies all of the time. For example, imagine a Beyoncé performance. In this situation, an ally should be on the side of the stage doing the backup vocals supporting the act. Imagine a backup singer walking up front telling Beyoncé 'step aside, I've got this B'. IMAGINE. But that's pretty much what the publicity for HeForShe does.

I'm aware that the launch of the HeForShe campaign might have been a feminist awakening for some people.  The amount of people it has engaged is an incredible achievement. Creating passionate activists is something that we're passionate about too, so we can at least agree on that. The NUS Women's Campaign aims to develop generations of student activists by provide them with accessible resources to create projects or campaigns relevant to them with tangible results and empower other to do the same. The student feminist movement has gone a long way and I'm proud of how many amazing feminists have been elected into sabbatical positions at students unions, championing liberation at every chance. So I find it highly concerning to hear that when women's officers raised their concerns about the binary and gendered language  of the campaign, the lack of intersectionality and so on, representatives from the campaign told them that the ideas they had were too sophisticated for the audience that they were aiming for...

*Clears throat* I'm pretty sure that students at university have the capacity to grasp concepts like intersectional feminism, trans identities, privilege and institutional oppression.

The founder of the twitter feminist youth army who started a feminist society at school held discussions around these issues in - a school classroom! Leaving these vital things out of discussions of feminism because "it will confuse people" or they're issues that are "too complex for students to comprehend" is frankly patronising. How are you going to know these ideas are too “complex” without even trying?

Want to generate real change? Get knee deep and support some grassroots action, actually listen to students. Put your money, resources and pencil-pushing power where your mouth is, because talk without action is pointless and futile.




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