When I call Hareem Ghani my feminist hero, it’s no exaggeration. That The Mancunion have decided to publish an attempted takedown of the new NUS women’s officer barely a month and a half into the academic year is disgraceful. A botched hatchet job by the University of Manchester’s student paper, it has all the the finesse of a Johnny English film, the literary talent you’d expect from a late-night, rage-fuelled Facebook status. Hareem’s shining record as King’s College London (KCL)’s former women’s officer is still felt at my university today, and amid the vitriol and abuse faced by the few women of colour actually holding NUS leadership positions, it’s high time we recognised just how much they have achieved.
I’m not the only one who thinks that. The backlash The Mancunion’s article received before even making it online is testament to the work she has done to earn the support of her peers. Although her contributions to KCL have often been undermined by the university, the testimony of students who have been attending King’s for barely a month sends a very clear message: Hareem Ghani is one of the most promising activists in student politics today. She has achieved all of this despite working for an institution that has consistently ignored the seriousness of racism and Islamophobia. To accuse Hareem – someone who faces abuse daily for working to better the lives of everyone around her– of being a “sub standard” activist requires at least an extremely over-inflated ego.
The contradictions, falsities and inaccuracies in this polemic show such a serious lack of research it could never have got away without a rebuttal. From the start the writer labels Hareem a ‘prominent member of the Intersectional Feminist Society’ at King’s, a sleight of hand that simultaneously demotes her and makes her involvement seem personalised and self-serving. A quick Google search shows she was actually an accomplished co-President.
To understand fully why Hareem Ghani is one of best female student activists in the country it’s important to consider her legacy as KCL women’s officer, a post she held last year, before her election to the NUS. She put on a 24-hour radio takeover raising money for sexual assault survivors, used funding from her own campaign for events addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria, as well as convincing the students’ union to put aside funding from Women’s History Month to pay for students attending protests against Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. Hareem joined a radio show with fellow student Mariya Hussain to create a platform for Muslim women to speak out about their experiences in the UK. She raised more than £800 for Rape Crisis, and her signature “It Stops Here” campaign organised 23 events to organise against sexual assault, pressuring the university into reviewing its own guidelines on the issue. She introduced mandatory inductions for new students garnering attention in the national press. Hareem did all this while studying for her own degree.
One of Hareem’s most popular policies was the introduction of free sanitary products on campus. “A true female activist,” asserts The Mancunion’s author, “would set up a campaign to give sanitary products to [homeless] women, not students funded by government loans”. Apart from being dismissive and diversionary, this really couldn’t be more uninformed, failing to mention the numerous campaigns at KCL to provide homeless women with sanitary products. Working with the Eve Project, one particular campaign run by the Acts of Random Kindness Project was specifically supported by Hareem.
Dismissing the need for free sanitary products on campus is telling in its ignorance of the modern realities of student life. In fact, one of the biggest problems facing students in London today is homelessness, and far too many face having to study without a safe place to stay. When the cheapest university accommodation is more than the minimum government loan, and not enough spaces to go round anyway, it is inevitable that a significant number of students now live below the poverty line. Hareem’s initiative to provide them with free sanitary products will no doubt make a huge difference in their lives.
One of Hareem’s first pledges as KCL women’s officer was to “represent and celebrate the diversity of women from all campuses at King’s and ensure their ideas are represented and implemented,” something she undoubtedly fulfilled. She campaigned publicly against Islamophobia and KCL’s poor response to threats against Muslim students when two female students were attacked outside the university. She supported the King’s Ethnic Minority Association and protested with them repeatedly, as well as working with them to create the ‘Wall of BAME’ in response to lack of recognition of BAME alumni (women, non-binary and trans). Hareem arranged for the Pride flag to be flown half-mast in solidarity with victims of the Orlando attack, founded the Women of Colour Network, and helped launch the Students Not Suspects campaign against Prevent, co-hosting their first ever event.
Hareem has also worked tirelessly to bring to attention the struggles BME women face in STEM subjects. Official statistics show 83% of year nine students at selective schools opt to study triple science at GCSE, but only 31% of state schools children did the same. By the second year of A-Level, only one fifth of physics students are female. In fact, 49% of state schools in England and Wales send no girls to study A-Level physics. The percentage of women taking up STEM subjects all the way to university has not changed in 30 years, and they make up just 21% of physics degrees. At KCL alone, BME students are 19% less likely to achieve a 2:1. In the workforce, the UK has the lowest number of women in STEM sectors across Europe. Only half of women with an engineering and technology degree end up working in the sector, compared to two thirds of men. Women make up nearly 50% of the workforce, but represent just 15% of ICT professionals, 13% of the STEM sector, and 5.5% of engineering professionals. This is despite the fact women on average perform better than men at every level of education.
One of the most bizarre attacks in The Mancunion is on Hareem Ghani’s current platform; “This year, she intends to address ‘black mental health’ – whatever that means”. This gross dismissal of mental health issues isn’t just lazy, it’s dangerous. A focus on black mental health is a recognition the mental health struggles faced by black men and women are significantly different to those faced by others. White women do not have to face racial abuse, are not discriminated against in workplace applications for their names and hairstyles, nor do they have to fear logging onto social media to be confronted with images and videos of racist violence. The author is correct in that mental health affects everyone, but the simple fact is that women, people of colour and those living in poverty are much more likely to suffer from mental health problems than anyone else. As NUS women’s officer, Hareem has recognised this, already managing to secure a qualified black therapist to deliver free workshops for black women.
Outside of her work as a student officer, Hareem has also been vocal on abortion rights and prison reform. Although abortion is technically available on the NHS in most parts of the UK, it’s important not to dismiss that there are still issues surrounding abortion rights here. Specialist clinics that perform abortions are few and far between. Despite being a city with some 200,000 residents, for example, if someone in York wanted to have an abortion, they would have to travel all the way to Doncaster. That doesn’t begin to touch on accessibility issues for those who are disabled, living outside a city or are unable to fund travel costs. The abortion law of 1967 did not even fully legalise abortions; women still have to have ‘due’ reason and be signed off by at least two health professionals before she is allowed to carry on with the procedure. Women in the UK are still criminally prosecuted for performing painful and life-threatening self-induced abortions because of a lack of accessibility and doctors refuse to sign off on at least 2% of abortion cases every single year. Hareem spent the last month visiting Belfast and planning a conference for abortion rights, where women’s lives are continually in danger due to a ban on the procedure.
The work Hareem has already done in her capacity as NUS women’s officer promises an incredibly positive year ahead; she has raised over £2000 in collaboration with Black Blossoms in response to the French Burkini Ban and is working to organise a tour in Scotland for female students who want to protest inhumane immigration detention at Yarl’s Wood. She has done this all while facing daily abuse for being the first Muslim woman elected to her office.
In the last paragraph of The Mancunion’s diatribe, the writer makes one final snarky comment; comparing Hareem Ghani to Laurie Penny, and the Guardian troupe of white feminists that are, in essence, the complete antithesis of what Hareem has worked towards. This comment couldn’t demonstrate more how clearly the writer has failed to understand not only of any of Hareem’s work, but also the work of these prominent pundits.
Hareem does this in spite of all the abuse she receives. The article’s claim she is ‘self-serving’ is just flagrantly inaccurate. This attack is just one of many activists like Hareem have to face on a daily basis. It’s hardly a coincidence the NUS is facing one of its biggest crises in years only after two Muslim women were elected to two of its most important offices. The toxic environment the NUS has created for BME and Muslim women is well-documented but goes completely unremarked upon by most student media.
The author of The Mancunion’s article holds some questionable accolades themselves. A member of ‘Open Oxford’, they are vocal on typical alt-right issues of the ‘new’ conservative voice of fringe student politics, and speak of their willingness to listen to Trump-supporting shills like Milo Yiannopoulos in the name of ‘free speech’. It’s no surprise they’re hellbent on denying and devaluing the incredible work Hareem has done. But for someone so focused on ‘common sense’, they seems to have forgotten one small fact; free speech is not free when someone else has to pay the price.