Reconciling feminism and interfaith work on campus

When I first ran for election as National Women’s Officer in April this year, I never anticipated that the political landscape would evolve into what it is today. I didn’t expect the British public to vote in favour of Brexit, though I did foresee the wider implications that Brexit would have for minority groups in the UK. I definitely did not prepare for the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, however.

Ahead of my election, I repeatedly pledged to reconcile feminism and interfaith work and to ensure a space for women of faith and/or colour within feminist activism. I wholeheartedly believed – and still believe – in the importance of intersectionality. Racism and sexism do not exist in a vacuum, and oppressions often intersect, making it imperative for us to challenge them together.

Hate crimes in the UK spiked sharply after the Brexit vote and they continue to increase today. A total of 3,076 hate crimes were recorded across the UK between 16th and 30th June 2016, compared to the 915 that were reported over the same period in 2015. Reports of antisemitism increased by 11 per cent over the last year, whilst Tell MAMA recorded a 300 per cent rise in cases of ‘gendered Islamophobia’ (Islamophobic attacks that specifically targeted women wearing the hijab or the niqab.)

In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, these statistics are only expected to increase further. His presidential campaign was largely built on divisive (read: sexist and racist) rhetoric specifically targeted at minority groups, and like Brexit, Trump’s election legitimises the abuse that these groups face.

To me, it makes sense for the Women’s Campaign to endeavour to unite the communities that are likely to be the targets of such abuse. The NUS’s work on reconciling the communities of faith and feminism thus becomes all the more critical.

Indeed, feminist activists throughout history have often championed anti-racist work. To name a few, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou and Patricia Hill Collins led the fight for social justice, calling on society to see how racism often intersected with sexism and classism and working actively to implement the change they sought to see in the world.

This is precisely what the NUS Women’s Campaign intends to do for the year ahead.

We know that women, particularly those from marginalised groups, have often paved the way for societal change and social cohesion.

We want to bring marginalised identities together and we intend to plan collective action to this end. In particular, the NUS Women’s Campaign hopes to forge meaningful relationships between Jewish and Muslim women students on campuses. We believe that women students can be effective agents for change, and that is why we intend to work closely with representatives from the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) so as to benefit wider society at a time of increased racism and hatred.

To achieve this, I have pledged to oversee a number of initiatives during my tenure as NUS Women’s Officer. For example, I hope to organise a conference in late January entitled ‘I Will Lead the Way for Women of Faith.’ The conference will support the aspirations of these women through leadership training and offer attendees a unique insight into the work being led by women in their communities. It will be an opportunity to network, and specially, a chance to create conversation between Jewish and Muslim women; to highlight that their similarities are far, far greater than their differences. This is especially true as Jewish women and Muslim women can often face the added pressure of combatting sexism within their respective communities alongside facing racialised forms of sexism on a day-to-day basis.

I can only imagine that my research into the experience of Muslim women on campus is likely to echo the grievances aired by many Jewish women students, which is something I trust will be documented by Robbie Young’s research into the experiences of Jewish students on campus.

I believe that the work being conducted by the NUS Women’s Campaign and the Vice President of Society and Citizenship, Robbie Young, can set an example for many in the student movement. Most importantly, I believe it can create a much-needed conversation between two communities.

The challenges faced by women and the challenges faced by people of faith are not mutually exclusive. Therefore as NUS Women’s Officer, I look forward to seeing women of faith and minority backgrounds lead the way in pioneering intercommunity efforts to fight oppression in all its forms, and I pledge to do all that I can to make it happen.

About the Author
Hareem is the National Women’s Officer for the National Union of Students in the UK
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