Safe spaces (or how SOAS should learn to stop worrying and listen to Muslim women)

Personal disclaimer: I am a former SOAS student and was on the Student Union executive from 2012-13. I am putting this here because I generally refrain from writing analysis or commentary from a first-person perspective, and try to only use the first-person in reporting when writing ‘*said person* told me’. In short, I don’t like making the story about me. But I have my own views on the incidents discussed and am not taking a patronising, detached stance.


The I Too Am Oxford/SOAS campaign led by black and South Asian students in March – drawing on similar US campaigns – was a potent reminder of racism in the British academy. They were asserting their right to be in elite universities in a system where only 85 of 18,500 professors are black. Constituting ‘safe spaces’ and removing individual ‘racists’ can’t dismantle racism in universities – racism is a more pervasive set of practices and structures. But while SOAS students grasp that racism is systemic, they desperately cling to the myth that SOAS is outside these pervasive structures, ‘different’. This is most obvious in the recurring applications of safe spaces against Muslims.

SOAS is a strange place to describe. A self-declared Marxist can confess they’re worried people will discover they’re really a social democrat. A candidate can make an antisemitic joke, and students who would condemn ISoc (Islamic Society) as antisemitic will cover for them. Straight gender studies students can get overexcited and announce they’re queer, then ask bisexual people ‘if you’re still gay’ when they date someone of a different gender. Some will drunkenly whisper that only Geert Wilders can save Europe and then quietly assimilate back into left groups.

The antisemitism at SOAS is a notorious problem. But the Islamophobia is perhaps more dangerous because it is insidious. The bulk is directed towards Muslim women. Many non-Muslims conveniently embrace a soft sexist notion that the men in ISoc can speak for the self-identified women. One Muslim woman best summed up this attitude as ‘like we’re just making the tea’ when bake sales are held to raise money for women’s groups in Syria for example (not appreciating these groups are having radical discussions about gender in the middle of a war). They are reduced to their choice of clothing, not their myriad experiences. In a world where patriarchy scars all self-identified women and their ability to make choices that can mitigate sexism, Muslim women are seen as too scarred, too brainwashed to narrate their own response to patriarchy.

A recreation of Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’ in the SOAS Junior Common Room hosted by HYSTERIA magazine, in which the audience participates in cutting off the performer’s clothes (showing how society undresses all self-identified women), underlined this belief. The performer had previously done a piece in which she wore a cut-up burqa. One Muslim student’s criticism was not the piece itself, or a prudish religious attitude to self-identified women’s bodies, but how decontextualised it was from what Muslim women in the UK experience. She called for avoiding a short-term desire to shock for its own sake, but instead to ‘consult other women; especially from outside the society, and from groups that they say they want to engage with’. She subsequently published a set of e-mails between herself and the event organiser – reacting to the information the event had made many upset, the organiser said ‘I WILL BREAK [safe space policies] and hopefully make many more people cry’. The response from most within the student union (SU) was either silence, or invoked the idea that SOAS is ‘different’. The student’s silent protest at the next HYSTERIA event was condemned as divisive and her criticism of white feminism as racist. Mostly people hoped for the matter to go away.

The student who criticised the performance does not wear a hijab. She was in effect, undressed by the organisers of the event as insufficiently Muslim or feminist. Whether this was intentional is unimportant. What is more important is the context of UK society. While accused of criticising the performer’s body, she was actually criticising the artistic, academic, and political claims people declare over Muslim women’s bodies: while clothes are cut from this performer’s body, hijabs are torn from Muslim women’s heads – 58% of Islamophobic violence is targeted against Muslim women. The sexist street harassment all self-identified women fear takes a distinctly racialised bent against Muslim women, with one saying ‘I’m going to stand out whatever I do’. Performances at HYSTERIA events critiquing the niqab were thus like walking into a petrol station with matches. The terms of critiquing the niqab have to be defined. The debate cannot be about transgression, about ‘breaking’ safe space policies when a school not far away in Camden stopped a student from wearing the niqab with their interpretation of ‘safety’. Incidentally, anyone who says ‘unveiled’ in the context of Muslim women speaking openly should probably have a wheelbarrow thrown at them.

Ironically, for all the criticism that safe spaces prevent ‘transgressive’ acts, the very presence of Muslims becomes enough to invoke ‘safety’ – or for peace above addressing the injustices Muslim students feel. It was not unlike the recent ‘human zoo’ exhibit at the Barbican depicting black slavery. The project was defended as transgressive and the protests against it denounced as censorship. But the real censorship takes place in sidelining black artists in the industry. Both the academy and the museum are seen as unbiased spaces that collapse hierarchy. The desire for safe spaces, or alternatively subversion for its own sake, rests on the belief that universities and art are ‘higher’ spaces that can decontextualise – and can therefore be pure.

Many are absolving themselves of accountability in this incident, and broader criticisms about Islamophobia and Muslim women’s disenfranchisement, with faux declarations of neutrality – that SOAS is a special and ‘different’ place. Yet it’s a place where the administration can tell a student that rape is ‘insufficient evidence’ to defer exams. The university of Enoch Powell believes it has sufficiently addressed its colonial history. It is thus useful to ‘otherise’ misogyny, homophobia, or antisemitism to Muslim students. This happened when the Muslim Students Association invited Julie Bindel to talk in order to challenge her Islamophobic columns. Ms. Bindel was ‘no platformed’ (not allowed to talk) for her transphobic columns, and her potential to create an unsafe space. But if the no platform policy has any consistency, why has it not been applied against HYSTERIA?

There is an attitude that transgression and destroying the gender binary is inherently virtuous. But there may be a problem if certain people say these spaces make them uncomfortable. It’s much easier to say eliminating economic inequality will eradicate racism when a person of colour brings up the left’s history of supporting eugenics, or giving the ‘that’s nice, dear’ look to a cis woman talking about abortion rights: it’s comforting because it is simple. But who is being shocked or ‘made to cry’ by subversion for its own sake? The image on the front of one HYSTERIA magazine of a woman wearing period-stained pants had radical power in the 1960’s, but is now a little naff. Beyonce’s feminist imagery is often criticised in these spaces as upholding capitalist norms. But her power comes not from subversion, but being a black woman who is the most culturally significant figure of her generation. Such criticism is insincere when profiting off performers who engage in burqa cut pieces. Decontextualised, perhaps the image of period-stained pants is more subversive than a black woman with unparalleled levels of artistic autonomy. ‘Subversive’ queer performance, or performance that subverts the gender binary solves nothing for the homeless lesbian youth or the scared trans teenager: people are dying, pull yourselves together.

It’s scary to admit these spaces cannot be free of hierarchy or avoid elevating the most privileged voices: it implies performance and belief alone cannot redistribute power and autonomy. The idea of gender ‘as a performance’ has been criticised for that reason by trans women like Julia Serano. Trans women and/or women of colour have had to fight to be recognised as women and don’t have the privilege of ‘undoing’ their gender as performance. Katherine Cross has pointed out these postmodern arguments about the ‘individual as the prime site of resistance’ are deeply cynical in accepting patriarchal structures as intractable, that any policy concession is fraternising with patriarchy. As Serano explored in her book Whipping Girl, these spaces become very insular – enjoying subversion and deconstructing meaning and little else.

It is easy to deconstruct, but not particularly radical: buildings fall down and get rebuilt all the time – what is being constructed? ‘Shocking’ performances offer instant gratification, but transform nothing for those whom reality’s scars are not eased by making it less real. Saying gender is a performance places the burden on scarred people to undo their oppression with pure choices that are unavailable. It inevitably gives worth to certain choices – like removing one’s niqab. Muslim women’s behaviours are more regulated as a result. What if instead of reducing meaning – and a paradoxical belief that people have to defeat patriarchal structures through their own choices – there was attention on authenticity, on love? Authenticity or realness better deals with questions of what Muslim women wear than performance. The liberal language of ‘choices’ has no way of describing that wearing the hijab does not delineate moderate or extreme identities, but is a more multilayered navigation of identity and culture within a wider patriarchal society. Love similarly has an easier relationship with justice than transgression and deconstruction do. Some queer Muslim women have said love embodies the part of themselves closest to god. This gets at something else in the formation of these spaces: not sentimental love, but the development of empathetic communities, centred not on shared suffering but a personal and political desire to engage with people’s realities.

This incident was not the sum of its SOAS parts, but a larger reflection of feminist failures to listen to Muslim women. A space designed ‘to contradict’ and ‘to disagree’ couldn’t respond to being called out as an opportunity to build up – to see Muslim women as more than the sum of their piety and their dress. What would a space based on realness, love, on alliances and not ‘sameness’ – encouraged by the idea that some choices are more radical than others – look like?

De-escalation is the first priority. When Muslim students critique safe spaces, sarky responses about gender segregation and homophobic preachers should be avoided. Objections were raised when Haitham Al-Haddad was invited to talk on Islamic finance despite previously making homophobic and pro-female genital mutilation (FGM) statements. But the focus was on white LGBT folk feeling unsafe without considering LGBTI Muslim perspectives. Rather than asking non-Muslims to condemn Muslim homophobia/transphobia as exceptional, LGBTI Muslim groups say combatting Islamophobic violence is critical to their security – specifically gaining recognition in Muslim communities. Building these communal models of security rather than safe academic spaces has a better chance of nurturing radical and intersectional coalitions. Similarly, condemning voluntary gender segregation in Islamic talks in isolation from the context of self-identified women-only spaces, or the toxic culture of harassment and assault on campuses, weakens Muslim women’s voices. The irony is many Muslim women favour gender separation in talks in order to feel comfortable voicing dissent.

Anti-sexual harassment campaigns should pay attention to the numerous ways Muslim women are exposed to violence. White feminism has often condemned how some Muslim women travel with chaperones – ignoring that all self-identified women feel unsafe and vulnerable to harassment in public (incidentally, Saudi women appear largely sceptical of repealing the driving ban because of potential exposure to increased harassment). Muslim women not only face the majority of Islamophobic attacks, but are also vulnerable to police harassment. Abstract calls to ban the niqab in public avoid the inconvenient fact that the French ban has put many women under effective ‘house arrest’. Criminalising the niqab does not abolish it, but rather increases Muslim women’s exposure to the police. Enshrining ‘dressing Muslim’ as a crime increases state profiling of Muslim women, and hands racist men greater room to harass Muslim women – as increased attacks already warn against. Groups like Everyday Sexism and Hollaback must think about these intersections in tackling street harassment.

Foreign policy issues naturally prove alluring at the School of Oriental and African Studies. But those who know about Egyptian police performing virginity tests on women protestors for example need to know virginity tests have historically been employed against women of colour at the UK borders – borders and the police operate as part of patriarchy. Usually the only considerations of asylum policy are saving an individual woman or queer person from deportation. But it is borders themselves – and detention centres specifically – which produce both direct violence from guards, and the deportation of self-identified women to conflict zones where they experience sexual violence. Borders also intensify gendered violence in more insidious ways: checkpoints and economic sanctions lead to Palestinian women being refused reproductive care and the denial of economic and medical resources to Iranian women. Bodily autonomy cannot just be measured by access to abortion.

When discussing Muslims combatting the Taliban or Boko Haram, it needs to be remembered they are still Muslims – with differing understandings of their faith in relation to culture, class, and imperialism. Malala is not a secular symbol against the Taliban, but someone for whom universal education and women’s liberation is in the framework of Islam.

But most important is the simple task of ensuring Muslim women are leading and centring these debates. It is easy to abstract Muslim women as concepts, and issues like the niqab as distinct and requiring specific regulation; it is much harder to think about Muslim women as part of a wider community, and their experiences as subject to broader capitalist, racist, patriarchy. These complexities are harder to legislate by say, banning ‘honour killings’ as distinct from crimes of passion and domestic violence – or condemning tribal authorities ignoring honour killings as worse than local police authorities overlooking domestic violence. Allowing Muslim women control over their narratives is essential – not to conflate their struggles as identical to all other self-identified women, but as being best positioned to discuss their experiences in relation to religion and racism. When the NUS black students’ officer, a Muslim woman, receives hate mail for voting against an anti-ISIS motion which legitimised state surveillance of university Islamic societies, the gendered consequences of this motion need to be considered: the state often expects Muslim women to act as surveillance on Muslim men. Similarly, while Caitlin Moran tries to take charge of anti-FGM crusades, Muslim women and women of colour are already taking the lead – and hesitant about additional criminalisation and surveillance which may harm women who are both perpetrators and victims.

In SOAS, the development of anti-racism narratives can’t just inherit a US perspective shaped by slavery and the genocide of indigenous Americans – the majority of British people of colour are South Asian. One problem in this instance was that a Bangladeshi British woman was discussing her disenfranchisement. These feminist and anti-racist spaces do not have a sufficient narrative for the triple discrimination – race, religion, and gender – Muslim women face in the workplace, and the particular class barriers Bangladeshi women face. Most SOAS literature on Bangladesh focuses entirely on Muhammad Yunnus and Grameen Bank loans – and by extension implies this is the answer to this triple discrimination. Left out are the women factory workers battling for union recognition and workplace safety in response to the Rana Plaza factory collapse last year.

Much of this leads to questions about creating ‘safe spaces’. Such policy at SOAS, or the appearance of such, has been repeatedly applied against Muslim organisations and individuals. But none of these issues can be decontextualised. What is evident is an absence of democracy and accountability. This is not about SU elections, but something more fundamental – failing to engage with and listen to those one is trying to represent or save. People’s realities get in the way of transgression and revolution. In this instance, whether with good intentions or not, transgression became a hierarchical matter. In the name of creating subversive spaces, someone had to be subverted against. In the name of being exceptional, someone was made exceptional.

A space of love might better comprehend that people want to debate ideas and discuss, but that this doesn’t need to be academese. It’s too easy to think the battle is over our bodies in terms of sex – that cutting burqas up or being snobby about monogamy is where destroying patriarchy lies. But we live in a society actually quite familiar with sex: we do not live in a society particularly comfortable with love though. Janet Mock says, ‘Being exceptional isn’t revolutionary, it’s lonely. It separates you from your community. Who are you, really, without community?’ We can only conceive of the disabled single mother on benefits, the trans teenager dealing with discriminatory school authorities, or the immigrant sex worker, in terms of their transgressions – as if everything is performance and falling into the trap of blaming self-identified women for the limited choices they use to survive. It would be better in SOAS, and activist spaces generally, to articulate means and strategies for honouring people’s lives and contexts – precisely because it is uncomfortable. This framework of love and empathy might then be the truly transgressive space.


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