Room of their own: why women’s centres help combat rampant sexism on university campuses

I USED TO HATE FEMINISM and women’s only spaces. I internalized misogyny and sounded like Taylor Swift circa 2012 and Shailene Woodley circa now. I thought hard work and dedication would make me equal. I was complicit in circle jerk patriarchy systemically; I only fleetingly saw color, and I’m racialized. It wasn’t until entering my third year of university in Ontario that a sickening revelation hit me while hosting interviews for campus orientation leaders: I’d worked hard to be in a leadership position in the student union just to have the “prestige” of selecting which bros were best to welcome first years to campus.

Behind the scenes in student organizing the saying “boys will be boys” remains a staple mantra in apologizing for misogyny. The interviews boasted multiple steps of an application, including a creative component, oddly (and potentially illegally) a photo, and a multi-room interview. For the creative components, people submitted everything from cakes to collages, but what stuck out most were the videos. One audition video featured what I would now describe as a quintessential dudebro, reminiscent of the internal personalities and goals of many of the men on campus. He was wearing a towel, walking around his residence with girls fawning over him. The soundtrack was offensively cheesy, and so were the mediocre lines explaining he’d be a good fit because ladies, supposedly, “love him.” My fellow committee members seemed to agree. Their jovial tone, however, changed when we heard from female applicants. The comments disgusted me: each woman, without fail, was immediately reduced to sex appeal.

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A very basic notion finally dawned on me: all the feminists I didn’t understand had a valid point. University suddenly seemed like a patriarchal wasteland. I had no place to discuss or unpack my feelings. I suddenly felt like no matter how hard I worked, my campus was not necessarily a place for me. I broke down, desperately crying to a random counselor at my school’s health center. I didn’t know of a place on campus to process my feelings and feel safe–the counsellor felt like the closest place I could go to have an empathetic ear. It wasn’t just the objectification, which was gross, that bothered me. It was that it was so ingrained into the selection process, passed on like an heirloom. And, this process is not inherent to one campus; female embodiment on campuses has long been contested. Academia is not easily accessible, and it can seem even less so to women. Even when women find a place there, it’s not necessarily the best place–we can so easily become objects instead of people.

My experience at university is partially why I wasn’t shocked when, in September 2013, a chilling video surfaced online showing Halifax-based Saint Mary’s University’s frosh week chants. The chants centered on male students’ preference for non-consensual sex with underage girls. (“SMU boys we like them young … Y is for ‘your sister’, O is for ‘oh so tight’, U is for ‘underage’, N is for ‘no consent’, G is for ‘grab that ass’.”) The chants were not unique to Saint Mary’s: that same year University of British Columbia had an alarmingly similar chant. Then last year, McMaster University’s Engineering Society (MES) faced similar scrutiny after a book of chants resurfaced, ridden with references to child abuse, raping drunk women, plus physical, and sexual torture–amongst other inconceivably appalling acts. It was created by “student leaders.” The MES welcomes and mentors first year engineering students; it is an already predominantly male program. My own first year at university, kinesiology students were told by older student leaders to partner with someone of the opposite gender to play an “anatomy game.” This is degrading and unnecessary when bridging a transition from high school to post-secondary school; it blurs the lines of consent when we really can’t afford to have them blurred any further.

Recently, for instance, fourth year graduate-level students at Dalhousie’s dentistry school sparked both outrage and controversy with the creation of a misogynistic Facebook group where frequent sexually explicit posts were made about female peers. The group of male students, nauseatingly named the gentleman’s club, suggested non-consensual “hate” sex with peers and sex while women were unconscious. Thirteen of the dentistry students have been suspended but only after students, members of the public, and faculty, including four professors, formally filed official complaints with the school. Currently, one of the members is publicly fighting his expulsion for having exposed the group.

This is why we need more women’s centres on university campuses. Women’s centres have very specific mandates to support individuals facing gender violence, including everything from self-defense workshops to escorting women to abortion clinic appointments. University of British Columbia’s women’s centre, for example, has been cultivating that safer space for 40 years. The actual physical space of a women’s centre, plus its wide range of programming and support is invaluable, says Alexis Wolfe, president of UBC’s centre. Even so, centres can face opposition, especially with so-called men’s rights groups such as A Voice for Men and Canadian Association For Equity popping up throughout Canada.

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Any school that faces opposition to having a women’s centre on campus is a school that likely needs this space more than anyone,” says Wolfe. “Individuals facing gender-based violence and oppression are already so alienated in many of the aspects of campus life and the university experience and denying them a place to seek solidarity and resources to keep themselves safe and informed is an act of violence in itself.”

When I tell people that there is opposition to women’s centers on campuses–not only from self-proclaimed meninists, but also from student leaders and a growing number of women–most are in disbelief. Perhaps I live in feminist echo chamber, but I really fear the opposition is persevering in its stance that these centres do not hold value. As former “space allocation chair” of my school’s constantly name-changing (to pander to patriarchal thinking) Women and Gender Equity Network, I can attest to the daunting task of creating a centre. In our case, we lost the battle for a physical space and so became a network, not a centre with dedicated funds. Today, my alma mater has a student union that funds an anti-choice group on campus and has approved another $95,000 for an ice rink–both things that make it, as Wolfe says, conceivably, a place where a centre is needed most.

NASHWA KHAN is currently living and learning in the Greater Toronto Area. She is an avid storyteller, and lover of narrative medicine and public health education. Feel free to tweet her @nashwakay or find her at nashwakhan.wordpress.com and https://thefeministburrito.wordpress.com.