Thursday 02-04-2015 - 12:31
This year’s NUS Women’s Conference was pretty ace. We had panels on free education, safety on campus, and inclusive feminism and we hosted workshops on being a better ally to trans activists, supporting student carers, consent education and more.
We also passed some innovative policies, which I can’t wait to work with women students to turn into practice next year. Here are some of the highlights:
We voted for Motion 202: Free Education
- Education is a public good and should be free for everyone to access.
- The fight for a liberated curriculum, including but not limited to, fighting against a whitewashed and male-dominated curriculum, is integral to the fight for free education.
- At the current tuition fees rate, it will take women a lot longer to pay back their debt due to the gender pay gap.
What are we going to do?
- Oppose and campaign against all methods of charging students for education – including tuition fees and a ‘graduate tax’, which is a euphemism for ‘student debt’.
- Produce a briefing on the impact free education could have on women.
- Oppose 24+ loans in Further Education.
We voted for Motion 303: Supporting the decriminalisation of sex work
- Regardless of their reasons for entering into sex work, all sex workers deserve to have their rights protected and to be able to do their jobs safely.
- Decriminalisation would ensure that sex workers could report unsafe clients or violence at work without the worry of criminal repercussions, that sex workers can work together for safety, and that those who wish to leave the sex industry are not left with criminal records as a result of their job.
What are we going to do?
- Support and campaign for the full decriminalisation of sex work.
- Campaign against any attempt to introduce the Nordic Model into the UK.
- Support and be led by sex worker led organisations, such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, Sex Worker Open University and SCOT-PEP.
We voted for Motion 307: Detention centres
- New legislation is being drafted to make university compliance with Prevent obligatory, and students, especially international and BME students, are at risk of being reported to the Home Office and UKBA for supposed “extremist views.”
- Women in detention centres are at risk of sexual assault, and recently at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, it was reported that women were being pressured into sexual acts for assurances on their immigration status.
What are we going to do?
- Work with Movement for Justice to host public hearings on campuses throughout the UK, putting the UKBA, The Home Office and UK Government on trial, hearing witness testimony from those freedom fighters, asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, migrant workers, international students and all those who have experienced structural oppressions, brutality and harassment from these bodies.
We voted for Motion 504: The tax on menstruation should be abolished. Period.
- Many products are free from VAT as they are viewed as fundamental: food, prescriptions and children's clothes; but not sanitary products.
- It is unethical to charge for the upkeep of a natural bodily function, let alone ask people to give a contribution to the Government each time.
- No student should have to make a choice between taking the contraceptive pill to stop their period, using unsuitable items, or cutting down on other essentials in their budget.
What are we going to do?
- NUS Women’s campaign is going to encourage students’ unions to sell products at cost price/absorb the tax in their University’s municipality or businesses and, if possible, the provision of free sanitary products to all students who need them.
- We’re going support the campaign for #FreePeriods: calling on the Government to eradicate the cost of sanitary products.
We also passed other amazing motions which seek to further improve and support the lives of student women, which you can read via the Independent. But unfortunately it seems that the internet wanted to nit-pick and misrepresent our beliefs. It’s safe to say, we certainly hit the headlines. To put your mind at ease, here are some answers to the frequently asked questions about #nuswomen15
What’s with the jazz hands?
Quite simply, at NUS conferences, we often use the British Sign Language action for applause (which we refer to as “jazz hands” for short, though the action is slightly different). This is because we want to make our conferences an accessible space for people of all disabilities, learning difficulties and access needs. There are 200 people in a room and lots of debating which may inspire whooping and cheering; we use jazz hands to signify applause to avoid interfering with people's hearing aids, to avoid interrupting people when they are making speeches, and to avoid disturbing those who find bursts of loud noise causes feelings of anxiety.
It’s something we’ve been doing for years; the fact that it’s only now come under the spotlight in relation to women’s access needs just goes to highlight the discrimination that exists where sexism and ableism come together. Some people use any excuse to undermine and jeer at women. However we will not compromise on making our events as accessible as possible for delegates just because people don’t choose to respect this.
What about that motion on “appropriating black women”?
Historically, our annual LGBT conferences comprise of woefully few LGBT Black delegates, particularly women. The elected Black representatives on the LGBT committee decided to propose a motion that highlights some of the racism and sexism (misogynoir) that Black women face in society, especially the behaviours that are perpetuated by white gay men in the LGBT community.
The motion notes that we cannot reach out to Black LGBT women and make them feel comfortable in LGBT spaces unless white gay men acknowledge their privileges and stop mocking and appropriating Black women. Appropriation of Black women takes many forms; sometimes it is the appropriation of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which refers to speech, vocabulary, and slang that’s been shaped over years by Black people but is stereotyped and mocked by others. Other times it is gay white men asserting that they are a “strong Black Woman that don’t need no man”, or that they have a “sassy inner Black Woman”.
Being a Black woman in public spaces can be really hard. Non-black women often think it’s funny to touch or pull our hair without asking, make fun of our names, or demand we teach them how to twerk (because of course every black girl has that innate gift). The spoof Twitter account that was made about me employed these same stereotypes and attributes, ridiculing my identity. It’s important that we celebrate Black women’s achievements and contributions, while standing firm against Black appropriation which degrades and trivialises us.
This motion passed unanimously at both LGBT and Women’s Conferences. The motion resolves not to limit freedom of expression, but instead call out harmful behaviour and make spaces safer for Black women.
Did you ban drag?
No. A motion which was written by trans people was passed, highlighting that “transphobic fancy dress should be met with the same disdain with which we meet other prejudiced or appropriative costumes”. The motion specifically references fancy dress themed events which mock trans identities, as all too often trans people, and particularly trans women, are portrayed as both "funny" and "scary".
The motion clearly outlines in the footnote that “The use of "cross-dressing as a fancy dress costume” must not be mistakenly equated with "cross-play", wherein a fancy dress character's gender is swapped so as to align with the identity of the individual in costume. Similarly, drag (in any direction) as an expression or exploration of queer identity is to be encouraged, since it is easily distinguished from pillory of trans people. Likewise if the intention of the costume is demonstrably that the gender element is for neither humour nor shock-value, it will be deemed acceptable.”
So the motion actually encourages gender expression including drag; it’s just highlighting that when cross-dressing is done in a way that implies trans people are funny/scary/to be ridiculed it’s not okay. I remember bumping into a friend whose initiation for a sports club involved all the men wearing the women’s kit because they thought it was hilarious. He hadn’t considered the impact it may have had in our society which often mocks trans women for presenting as women. The motion simply calls for us to encourage unions to include transphobic appropriation in their zero tolerance policy because just as the cultures of Black people aren’t costumes to appropriate for the lols, trans people aren’t funny gimmicks either.
This motion stimulated a lot of debate because this issue is a complex one. We’ll never shy away from discussing difficult topics and we’ll always encourage students to raise the issues they care about.
NUS women’s campaign exists to represent and extend and defend the rights of women students. It’s events like our annual Women’s Conference which make me proud to lead a campaign that actively seeks to build an intersectional grassroots feminist movement to create a better society.