Get Real. speaks to the Women’s Officer candidates

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CN: mentions of harassment, transmisogyny/transphobia/TERFism, and misgendering

Audrey Sebatindira and Connie Muttock are lovely. Any bystander could deduce this without difficulty, considering how incredibly patient they both are with my haphazard and extremely unprepared interview style. Furthermore, in the usually tense and combative context of CUSU elections, it’s incredibly refreshing to speak to two candidates who are genuinely nice to each other; they support each other’s points and ideas to such an extent that at one point in the interview, I actually joke that for the sake of journalistic controversy, they need to find something to disagree on!

Both candidates express a wish for the Women’s Campaign to engage more widely with women and non-binary students, but rather than worrying about the potential of diluting WomCam’s message, they see wider engagement as an opportunity to gain more voices – particularly more marginalised voices. Connie underlines that “there’s no denying that WomCam does have a bit of a reputation issue and people feel intimidated about coming along, and it would be really good to have more voices heard at WomCam, especially involving the voices of people with intersecting oppressions; it’s so important that it doesn’t become just a white cishet women’s space”. She also notes the importance of wider engagement for the purpose of education – “the more people you get involved, the more people you can expose to things they’ve never thought about before”. Audrey agrees, emphasising that “it’s so hard to balance educating people with preventing harm… We need to be able to create entirely different spaces where the intention is only to educate and people feel like they can ask questions, or they can say things and be corrected and be educated, without people who are members of marginalised groups being harmed by having to hear those things for the umpteenth time”.

I ask what the candidates would pinpoint as the main issues facing LGBT+ women and non-binary students in the University, and Audrey immediately highlights recognition of non-binary identities and the importance of supporting campaigns like I Don’t Exist, and making spaces where non-binary people feel safe in Cambridge: “the onus should not have to be on non-binary people to raise their own issues.” She also mentions the heteronormative assumptions inherent in many college harassment policies. Connie echoes this point, emphasising that trans people, lesbians and bisexual women are statistically more likely to face harassment: “these are issues that we should approach with an awareness of the way they intersect.”

Regarding the issue of student representation on University committees – such as the Equality and Diversity committee, which is currently sat on by the Women’s Officer only – both candidates expressed a wish to push for representation for all Autonomous Campaigns, Connie stating that it’s “not appropriate to expect that the Women’s Officer can speak on behalf of all marginalised groups”, and Audrey underlining that making decisions without listening directly to marginalised students “shows a lack of commitment to equality and diversity on the part of the University” and that supporting the representation of marginalised students on committees “would help build confidence among the student body”. Connie also expressed the importance for the Women’s Officer to share resources and time, considering that CUSU LGBT+ and BME currently don’t have sabbatical officers.

I bring up the issue of transmisogyny/transphobia and TERFism that has sometimes been present in WomCam in various forms, and often discourages trans people (particularly those who face transmisogyny) from engaging. Audrey says that “intersectionality is at the heart of my campaign”, and both candidates express a willingness to collaborate more with CUSU LGBT+ and to openly support trans campaigns, in order to send a message that TERFism isn’t welcome in WomCam, Connie highlighting that college women’s officers need to make it clear that WomCam Forum is a trans-inclusive space. In terms of tactics, Audrey affirms the need for “a clear set of rules (specifically no gender policing) that are given before we go to the space”, and the importance of education “from the first week of term”, referencing the workshops she set out in her manifesto: “to spread an awareness of what cissexism is, what transphobia is, but also an understanding of how intention doesn’t really matter in those cases [where someone misgenders someone else]… that person will have their gender policed every single day, and their experience erased every single day”. Connie again mentions the importance of “keeping a distinction between educative places and safe spaces”, suggesting that using online platforms such as videos to break down terms and definitions would be an accessible format for educating those who haven’t come across terms such as ‘gender policing’. Both candidates also stress that trans inclusion should be a priority of college Women’s Officers.

With a hint of irony considering its coverage in election material so far, I bring up the issue of no-platforming. Both candidates, refreshingly, stand in support. Connie “totally stand[s] by no-platforming people whose opinions and voices are directly damaging” – especially when those people are invited into colleges where marginalised students live – because “there are so many people whose voices aren’t heard… People should be focusing not on platforming these really harmful people but on platforming marginalised groups.” Audrey says that “the main reason there’s so much opposition to [no-platforming] is that people attempt to define ‘harm’ in really narrow ways, expecting that a person is only harmed if there’s something tangible that they can see and empathise with. But ideas shape people, they shape actions and experiences, and so they can inevitably be harmful… Why would we want those kinds of people in our spaces anyway? I’m always quite put off by this idea that you invite a horrible speaker and you question them and that’s supposed to change things, as if someone who’s spewed these views on loads of occasions and been questioned by loads of people is going to be turned around by a group of Cambridge students? It’s just arrogant and silly.”

Both candidates reference the reaction to Germaine Greer’s invitation to the Union last year as a good model for WomCam to follow; Connie underlines the importance of the educative aspect, as “there are so many people for whom Germaine Greer is just a well-known name and people only know that she was a well-known feminist in the 80s”, whilst Audrey stresses the importance of the alternative safe-space event held, saying that “people need a reminder in situations like that that this is their home and there are people who do care about them and who are thinking about their wellbeing.” Neither candidate shies away from any backlash from press or other online sources; as Connie says, “the press are always gonna find something to throw at feminists, to throw at women, to throw at trans people… If you stand by what you believe in… It’s really important to stick your neck out there for people who feel less safe doing so.” Audrey echoes this sentiment, stating that such backlash “comes with the experience of being Women’s Officer… It is important, it is going to happen, someone has to do it… If you know how to look after yourself in the process of doing so, just do it.”

I joked to a friend when beginning the writeup of this interview that I was almost frustrated that there seemed so little to choose between two candidates who agreed so readily with each other’s ideas, and the ironic response – “yeah, how dare women support other women!” – pretty much sums it up. Audrey and Connie aren’t bothered about one-upping each other the way other candidates tend to in these elections; what they are concerned with is the wellbeing of Cambridge’s women and non-binary students, especially those who face intersecting oppressions. ‘May the best woman win’ would almost be disingenuous – this reporter is reassured that, whatever the outcome on Wednesday, Cambridge’s women and non-binary students will be in pretty good hands next year.

Em Travis, Get Real. Co-Editor

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