International Women’s Day 2021: Celebrating Women on Campus

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By Alice Lang, Second Year Philosophy

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChoosetoChallenge, intending to increase accountability for gender biases and combatting unsafe environments for non-male identifying individuals. Bristol students have already had great success driving such progress.

Through a mirage of zoom lectures, odd smells in libraries and retiring lockdown restrictions, Bristol’s two leading women’s groups, the Women’s Network, chaired by Anna Vause, and Intersectional Feminist Society (iFemSoc), headed by Shamar Gunning, have taken the challenge with earnestness to uplift connections and solidarity in a disconnected landscape, in celebration of women and all of their wonders.

In a year where incidences of domestic violence have increased by 700 percent, not counting those who’s experiences have been muffled by restricted outside access, and where women have felt the brunt of COVID-ensued job insecurity, such call to action has never been more vital. Inevitably, these trends have trickled down into the student ranks, as the first lockdown saw an increase in revenge porn and the student mental health crisis continues to spiral.

Both Vause and Gunning have powered on in their mission to raise awareness and create action on women’s issues, having altered their methods and themes to meet the new covid-friendly feminist playbook. No longer can the streets of Bristol be stormed by the righteous march of women and feminists alike, but rather, the fight continues within the borders of a Zoom page window.

The past week has been filled with events showing the multi-faceted nature of feminist interest and inclusion, with a sophisticated alliance between international themes and those felt closer to home. In a response to much-felt unrest, connection and solidarity are taking centre stage, caring for the female-identifying community on campus in a distraction from the work-from-home lifestyle we’ve all involuntarily subscribed to.

‘Creating a link between student’s own experiences with those felt across the globe has been particularly key, as we are living more and more in the context of globally felt movements and events’, Gunning told me, ‘This year we've focused more on individual students and what they’re looking for.’

FemSoc has held panel discussions with partnering organisations on intersectional issues facing women in Bristol. They met with SWARM last Thursday 4 March, a Bristol-based organisation providing safe spaces for sex workers and campaigning for decriminalisation, in opposition of Labour MP Diana Johnson’s bill posing to criminalise sex work.

Last Friday, 5 March, Gunning took part in a panel with Kavya Sharma, Chair of the Multifaith Network, Khadija Meghrawi, Chair of the BAME Network and Theresa Awolesi, Chair of the Black Students Network, to discuss being women of colour in leadership on campus, a chance to reconcile this year’s theme of challenge and leadership and its relationship emotional labour.

On the same afternoon, the Women’s Network held a panel with FUZE Bristol and the co-founders of the Speak Up Space, an organisation creating space for women to safely discuss their experience of sexual violence, discussing contemporary women’s issues, from violence against women, to fatphobia and racism.

No longer can the streets of Bristol be stormed by the righteous march of women and feminists alike, but rather, the fight continues within the borders of a Zoom page window

Both Vause and Gunning emphasised the importance community in a political society, giving society members, particularly this year’s freshers, a chance to connect with those they identify with, who are facing the same obstacles with a passion for progress.

With this in mind, Gunning founded PENGals, along with Bekki Burry, at the start of last term, an online space for women and non-binary people of colour on campus to come together and share their experience: ‘Loads of first years were saying they hadn’t met anyone that looks like us, but on a Zoom, it is still harder to make those interconnections’.

There is a life-drawing art class lead by Ru Wormington (@badgrl.ruru) upcoming on Tuesday 9 March, being held with STAR (Students’ Action for Refugees) and FemSoc, where participants, no matter their artistic fluency, can bring along their nudes to work from. Likewise, Artsoc is joining the Women’s Network this coming Friday for a life-drawing session coupled with your beverage of choice, both focusing on self-ownership an autonomy in the female body. ‘This an incredible emotionally exhausting year for everyone’, says Vause, ‘we want to do some nice events to celebrate the day, not anything emotionally taxing’.

There’s a bittersweet grace in navigating the hostile landscape of online events, as both groups have found a bigger allowance for accessibility and inclusion, now that all panels and mingles are being hosted on Zoom. Vause continued, ‘Corona has been absolutely awful, but one of the things that’s been really good about it is that all our events are accessible for people that might have physical disabilities.’

‘At the end of the day, we’re still a political society, a lot of what we’re doing is campaigning and raising awareness, and you can still do that virtually’, added Gunning, ‘We’ve been able to get so many more dynamic speakers.’

A global pandemic has fallen short in halting the work of these groups, not only creating necessary connections among minority groups across the virtual ether, but spreading awareness of vital issues, like the international violation of reproductive rights, or exploring sexuality as a disabled person, when in normalised displays of beauty and sexiness disabilities are so underrepresented.

‘We’re still a political society, a lot of what we’re doing is campaigning and raising awareness, and you can still do that virtually.’

Last term, Gunning and Vause came together in proposing a motion to garner ‘A Better Culture of Consent at Bristol SU’ at November’s student council meeting, making consent training compulsory for all society presidents and committee members and sports team captains. To have a stated responsibility of all social leaders on campus to be create conversations on consent will normalise its presence in our relationships, creating safer and more open spaces as we navigate them, one that is overshadowed both in social settings and the university’s approach to wellbeing.

Issues around consent, sexuality and identity do not only affect women - they affect everyone. International Women's Day is a day on which this can be celebrated.

‘Sometimes you get push back against it, some people don’t like the idea of International Women’s Day,’ said Gunning ‘but knowing everyone around the world is celebrating is lovely, being able to see how everyone else is celebrating is really great, the day holds a lot of significance.’


Explore events happening this week to celebrate IWD:

FemSoc and Disabled Students' Network discussion about disabled women and sexuality, Monday 8 March: https://www.facebook.com/events/773618340207513

STAR and FemSoc's 'You Are Art' drawing event tomorrow, Tuesday 9 March: https://www.bristolsu.org.uk/groups/star-student-action-for-refugees-4a10/events/you-are-art-art-class-with-ru

FemSoc, Her Campus, Amnesty Soc and Howard League for Penal Reform Society's letter-writing event on incarcerated womens' reproductive rights, Weds 10 March: https://www.facebook.com/events/899969287416377

ArtSoc and Women's Network 'Drink and Draw' event on Friday 12 March: https://www.bristolsu.org.uk/groups/bristol-su-women-s-network/events/drink-and-draw

Featured Image: Epigram / Women's Network IWD 2020

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