Coming to university and noticing the lack of spaces for women on campus has made me increasingly aware of the structural inequalities that both excludes women of colour whilst making it difficult for them to create their own safe space. The university institution is one I am using as a model to explore the wider issues surrounding accessibility, exclusion and institutional racism that exists in most institutions within the UK. Many universities are guilty of using students of colour as a marketing tool, even going as far as saying they are the most diverse university within the Russel Group. However, many students and staff of colour have expressed their dismay at universities using them for marketing but never doing the work to ensure people of colour are safe within these institutions. This is especially true for women of colour who are rarely ever considered in decision making at institutions, so how can women of colour be expected to thrive in an institution that has no regard for their wellbeing? One answer might be to have safe spaces for women of colour, and by that I mean spaces created by women of colour.
This article is the first of a series of three exploring the impact of women of colour spaces on campus (with QMUL as a case study). To kick things off, I sat down with Dr Azeezat Johnson, an academic at the School of Geography, QMUL. Dr Johnson’s research focuses on Black Muslim women and their experiences navigating spaces in the Global West.
We started our conversation by talking about the importance of women only spaces, “I think it’s an important part of deciding their own space in the university and its important for it to be used to strategize together”. Azeezat did, however, say that it is important for spaces to reflect on how the space is used, “it [women only spaces] doesn’t resolve all problems, especially if the racial dynamics aren’t considered.”. She added that when a space exists for women of colour, the accessibility of the space needs to be continually questioned in order to achieve the goals the space set out to. “You also need to consider who feels comfortable accessing the space, what time of day it is on as some people might have other commitments. There have to be principles no matter what space it is, you have to consider who is coming, why and how you can make it more accessible.”.
The conversation then turned to the university environment and whether Azeezat has noticed a shift in attitudes for the two years she has been here. With her response, Dr Azeezat reminded me that just because a space isn’t labelled as a women’s space, many groups at university are run and attended by women. “If we look at Decolonise QM, they’ve always been organising. Although they aren’t explicitly women only space, they are predominantly women who have been mobilizing and doing the work behind the movement. There are many different ways women have been sharing spaces without men, but people aren’t formalising it.”, she said. Dr Azeezat agrees that there has been changes in the wider environment but within universities, you have to make the spaces. I took this opportunity to ask her if she felt we should be working towards making space within the university, or should we go outside the institution for these places. “I don’t think you’re ever completely outside the university institution. It’s also right that we demand more social goods from the institution, where women can collect and think but go back out and put pressure on the university. Any changes that have happened at the university level have been due to pressure, I would be wary of not having space provided by the university you are paying for”.
To end our conversation I asked Azeezat what advice she would give to WOC who want to enter academia, or pursue a career in academia. Dr Azeezat was clear that allyship was the only way forward, “reach out to academics of colour, go to their open office hours, email them (and me)”. She added that the reason she stays in academia is down to her students, “coming from doing my PhD in Sheffield then coming to QM, there are a lot of students understanding their current surroundings, I’m grateful that I can use my scholarship to reflect students”. She added that those with experience of being racialised are ‘experts’ on this subject because of their first hand experience. “You can trust your instincts if you’ve been racialised, so you are a scholar, but often you need to find the language to use which is why you need support systems like women only spaces”.
“You always have to remember not to overshadow our issues that are central to liberation. We always need to think of people who are the most marginalised, is the space accessible to them, and how do we set up principles to do this?”. And with that our conversation was over, Dr Azeezat Johnson provided us with much needed wisdom about spaces designed for WOC, and her raising the issue of accessibility that many places don’t consider is vital for ensuring spaces for WOC to accomplish their goals.
Sara Omar is a 22 year old freelance writer living in London who has had work featured in gal-dem and CUB. She is currently studying Genetics at Queen Mary where she writes for the student magazine. Sara’s work focuses on news affecting women and refugees. Founder of Spaces for Women of Colour, Created by Women of Colour editorial on Amaliah