On the 6th November, Bristol SU’s Women’s Network launched their first big campaign of the year: Reclaim. You may be aware of ‘Reclaim the Night’, the annual march which first came to the UK in 1977. ‘It is a loud and proud protest by women and against male violence, oppression and marginalisation.’ Here in Bristol, the march will take place on the 25th November. This year though, Bristol SU’s Women’s Network have taken ‘Reclaim the Night’ a step further, adding Reclaim our Bodies and Reclaim our Power. I spoke to Sally Patterson, the current Chair of the Women’s Network at Bristol about this year’s campaign ahead of the march next week.
Why is the Reclaim agenda important?
University life is incredibly challenging- for many students it is their first time away from home, and the stress of balancing a social life with uni work and other commitments can be extremely difficult. Societal pressures can further isolate and disempower students. Reclaim aims to bring students together to remind them that they are not alone in some of the struggles that they face; together we are Reclaiming our Bodies, Reclaiming our Power and Reclaiming the Night.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault is a problem society-wide, but do you think that the Reclaim campaign is particularly important in a university setting?
Absolutely. Not only does campus life encompass unique aspects of gendered pressures and harassment, but we are also the people in the best position to challenge these institutional problems. After all, we are the next generation of leaders, and it is up to us to make things better for those around us and those following in our footsteps.
Have you been shocked by experiences of sexual harassment / violence that you or your friends have experienced at university?
I have been horrified, disgusted, upset. But I’m not longer shocked- I suppose it’s happened too many times to too many people around me for stories to really shock me anymore. What is important is that we do not become desensitised to these experiences- sexual harassment should not be the norm.
Does the University deal well with sexual harassment to your knowledge?
The university have a duty of care over its students- I think that this duty needs to be taken more seriously. Steps are being taken in the right direction, but this is only the very beginning of the conversation. There is a new reporting tool being implemented over the next couple of months, and I have been involved in discussions with the University about how best to challenge sexual harassment as well as best support those affected, but there is a long way to go in terms of transparency, accountability and education.
What are the aims of Reclaim Bristol?
Reclaim aims to bring students together to challenge some of the structural issues that surround us. Reclaim our Bodies aims to tackle ‘beauty’ norms and perceptions, both on campus and wider society. Reclaim our Power is about taking back our voices and standing up to sexual harassment together- after all, it is everyone’s problem, not just those who have been able to speak out about it. Reclaim the Night is part of a national movement, which reminds us that sexual assault is not as visible as it seems, and often happens behind closed doors, within relationships and to people of all genders.
You’ve moved the 'Reclaim the night' agenda on to a wider one – adding Reclaim our Bodies and Reclaim our Power. Can you explain why and what that means for the campaign?
Reclaim the Night has been hosted by Bristol SU for a few years now, and has been an incredibly powerful event every time. Previous Women’s Officers have adopted and adapted the march and event in their own ways, and I was honoured that this year the baton was handed to me. I felt, however, that for an issue as pervasive as sexual harassment on campus, more needed to be done with regards to education. Tackling sexual harassment was my number 1 priority in my election manifesto, and this is exactly what I’m attempting to do. Protesting and making a noise is an important part of any campaign, but personally I don’t think that this is enough; this alone will not change the culture on campus. Instead, we must remind women that they are beautiful, worthy and, perhaps most importantly, they are never alone at university.
Tell me about the individual events / components of the campaign.
This week is Reclaim our Power, which is all about taking back our voices, calling out unacceptable behaviour when we see it and uniting as a student body against sexual harassment. On Tuesday 14th November, we have lucky enough to have Bristol Zero Tolerance coming in to run a ‘bystander intervention’ workshop. This will be a tailor-made session specifically focusing on what we, as students, can do to make campus safer. It will provide practical advice on what to do if you witness sexual harassment, and how to act in a safe and effective way. The session will be particularly relevant to student leaders- presidents of societies, captains of sports teams and those in other positions of authority. These are the students who have particular influence over those around them, and can begin to pave the path for a safer campus. What’s essential about Reclaim our Power is that it is inclusive; safe spaces are undeniably important, hence our women-only Life Drawing event last week and our Self-Defence class on Wednesday. However, if we don’t include all students in the discussion, how can we possibly begin to change a campus-wide culture? It is the students who perhaps don’t usually engage with these sorts of activities that must be brought into the conversation. Education, not division, will lead to real change. Indeed, that is why our Reclaim the Night march on the 25th November is open to all genders- we will have a space at the front dedicated to women and marginalised gender identities, but the rest of the march is open to anyone and everyone. Personally, I think that the voices of our allies do not drown out, but further amplify our own.
For the events that have already taken place, how do you feel they have gone? Any stand-out moments so far?
Our Life Drawing workshop last week was such an uplifting experience- we had 35 women stuffed into a rather small meeting room in the SU, surrounding our two gorgeous life models. Personally, I’d never been to a Life Drawing session before, and I have to admit I wasn’t quite sure what to expect! I was absolutely blown away by the confidence of the models, one of whom was modelling for the first time, and the quality of artwork that the participants produced. We’re going to display some of the pieces at our event on the 25th, so that everyone can see their extraordinary depictions of body empowerment,
It seems like sexual harassment is everywhere in the news at the moment. Do you feel like this has affected the campaign?
To be perfectly honest, with every new scandal that we read about in the news, I feel that society becomes further desensitised to the issue. Over the past decade or so, many victims have started to feel more able to speak out about their experiences, and in a way this is progress; the problem very much still remains, but at least it is beginning to be recognised. Having said that, I fear that ‘consent’ and ‘sexual harassment’ have become buzzwords- boxes for employees, universities and politicians to tick off. Real change requires a paradigm shift; what we really need is a serious re-examination of gender constructs and deeply-rooted power biases.
What can people reading this who haven’t been involved in Reclaim Bristol so far, do now?
Getting involved with Reclaim is easy; join our Facebook group ‘Reclaim Bristol 2017’ to keep up-to-date with the campaign. Also like ‘Women’s Network Bristol SU’ to stay informed and come along to our events- everyone is welcome unless it is specifically a women-only event.
What next in terms of campaigning on this issue? Can we do more to tackle the problem?
Every student can do more to tackle sexual harassment on campus. It can be as small as starting a conversation with those around you about the issues, challenging a friend’s behaviour on a night out, or getting involved in some of the amazing campaigns going on around Bristol. The most important thing is to get involved- we must all be part of the solution.