8 March is International Women’s Day, and to mark the occasion free education activists from across the country have spent the weekend in an occupation of Senate House at the University of London. Helena Dunnett-Orridge reflects on the action from inside the occupation.
1. This is an explicitly feminist occupation.
On 6 March women and non-binary activists occupied Senate House at the University of London in order to radicalise and reclaim what has become a liberalised International Women’s Day.
The action was called by the women and non-binary caucus of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) as part of a campaign to highlight the feminist politics inherent in the free education movement, while criticising the more liberal forms of feminism that tend to dominate student politics by acting as a reminder of the radical and socialist roots of International Women’s Day.
2. Free education is a feminist demand.
The free education movement advocates the abolition of tuition fees, a fair and democratic university run by students, an end to education cuts, a living wage for all university staff, cops off campus and a liberated curriculum.
These demands are gendered and would benefit women enormously. Women have the most to gain from a shift of wealth from the highest paid workers to the lowest paid, especially the migrant women who clean our universities. A university with true democratic representation would ensure a voice for oppressed groups who are continually marginalised in the academy and help to influence a curriculum which explores the work of women including black, queer and disabled people. No police should be on a campus that properly supports the black, trans, queer and disabled women who are disproportionately targeted by the police. It goes without saying that the abolition of tuition fees would benefit working class people, and by extension working class women.
3. We call it WANBODA.
This action has been named the ‘women and non-binary only direct action’, or WANBODA for short. A key rallying point for this action has been to encourage feminist activists from oppressed gender identities to come together and take part in the most exciting and militant parts of direct action and to do so autonomously and without any input from cis men.
Too often cis men dominate our groups and put themselves forward as the key and most confrontational people when involved in direct action. There is a general feeling that these actions are ‘violent’ and therefore have no place in a women’s campaign. We refute this as sexist and essentialist and want to destroy this stereotype!
4. We are gender rebels: smash the patriarchy and smash the binary.
An important aspect of our campaign is the inclusion of non-binary activists in an explicit manner. Too often trans and queer issues are not considered to be feminist issues when, in fact, they are central to the cause. Challenging the gender binary and, by proxy, gender roles is integral to destroying patriarchal oppression for it is upon these strict binaries that patriarchy rests.
We are a varied group of people challenging heteronormativity: we are international students from across the world, we are working class home students, we are black women, we are trans, we are students, we are workers, we are unemployed, we are disabled, we are lesbians, we are queer. We are so many things and we all stand together in this occupation to challenge the gender binary and to make a firm statement about trans inclusion in the feminist movement: transphobia hurts women!
5. Women of the world unite AND FIGHT!
International Women’s Day began with the socialist movement in the USA, with women marching for voting rights, better pay and shorter hours – backed by the American Socialist Party. However, the official declaration of International Women’s Day occurred at the Conference of Working Women, held in Copenhagen in 1910, with a collective of over 100 women from 17 countries. Since then it has been observed all over the world.
However, what began as a stoutly socialist tradition with a keen class analysis has gradually become diluted with a neoliberal agenda – with papers such as The Guardian suggesting right-wing tyrants like Margaret Thatcher are ‘feminist icons’. Women’s groups tend to settle for tea parties, paltry ‘celebration’ of women’s rights despite our continued suffering, and generally weak symbolism.
There is a general refusal to acknowledge the intense oppression of women, trans and feminine people along gendered lines which continues to be a constant struggle for those who are subjected to it. We have come so far, and that is because we have continued to struggle for the radical emancipation of women and an end to patriarchy and heteronormativity. But we need to keep fighting patriarchy, and keep being active in continuing the legacy of our feminist sisters before us.
NCAFC Women have chosen to do this by means of an occupation and we encourage others to be creative and militant in their actions: from sit-ins to rallies, graffiti to strikes – the possibilities are endless.
7. NUS women’s campaign: safe from whom? Why we are critical.
The current NUS women’s campaign seems to have positioned itself primarily as a ‘safer space for women’, releasing a statement of priority on the topic and generally positioning itself as an authority on the concept.
It’s easy to see why this might sound positive in a world that is explicitly hostile to women and to femininity – there are so few spaces in which we can be comfortable and feel that we can speak freely and avoid direct oppression and oppressive behaviour. However, this works on the predicate that we should aim to insulate ourselves rather than attempt to get to the root causes of this hostile, oppressive environment.
It is entirely necessary to create spaces in which people are able to feel comfortable in challenging common oppressive discourse and feel that they are supported in doing so. If we want to model our own spaces in more progressive, non-oppressive ways so that we can work through oppressive behaviour standards and challenge unacknowledged privileged behaviour, then safer spaces become a key tool with which to do so. However, without contact and solidarity with the outside world, without consideration for those who cannot possibly be in our spaces due to their position of oppression (imprisoned immigrants, women in full-time unrelenting employment, women around the world who have no such spaces), without real consideration about how we challenge the core of patriarchy, this exercise becomes devastatingly pointless.