Safe spaces in higher learning

Safe spaces in higher learning

Date: December 5, 2011
  • SHARE:

Most people imagine that universities and other institutions of higher learning are spaces where there is a concentration on cognitive development and where intellectual growth is taking place. After all, these are the places where young (and more mature) people are inducted into the sanctuary of teaching and learning of how to reason, to conduct research and take part in discourses and theories. The emphasis here is undoubtedly on the brain, a place to deliberate in the abstract and on the scientific. More often than not, there is no space for the body and the emotive.

When women entered these ‘sacred’ spaces of teaching and learning, they arrived with all kinds of knowledge inscribed in their bodies. From the very beginning, they tried to transform these spaces into more inclusive environments.

However, there was also scepticism, as Virginia Woolf showed when she asked the question, ”Why do women want to join this masculine procession?” This question of Woolf’s remains relevant as institutions of higher learning are still not really accepting the ’embodied’ woman within its confines.

These spaces remain largely hostile and ignore the lived and life experiences of women. There are many “invisible” rules and attitudes to keep the “embodied women'” as well as “other'” bodies that are not perceived as “able” or heterosexual out of “malestream'” academy.

The Gender Equity Unit (GEU) at the University of the Western Cape has been one of the forerunners in creating safe spaces for women students, lesbian and gay people, and students with disabilities on campus. These student groupings are the most marginalised on any of the South African campuses even though women students, for instance, constitute more than 60% of the entire student population. So how did we go about with the process to create safe spaces without further pathologising the marginalised?

We always create our programmes with the need of the student at the centre. We also take into account that institutions of higher learning are the microcosms of broader society and that this university in particular bears the remnants of the apartheid education ideology. Geographically it is adjacent to a section of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and is located opposite an industrial hub and at the back is a historical “coloured” working class residential area.

The university is located far from any social and economic infrastructures and amenities usually offered in a city. The majority of the students in the residences do not come from Cape Town or even the Western Cape. This type of isolation and boxing into a very specific socio-economic hole were some of the factors that posed a particular challenge to us.

The university markets itself as most institutions do as home away from home but as a feminist staff, we were aware that “home” is often the most dangerous and dysfunctional place. These perceptions are supported by the national and regional sexual and intimate violence, rape, killings and femicide statistics.

If then, we argued, the institutions of higher learning are microcosms of broader society; our statistics on campus violence should be a reflection of this. We remain intrinsically part of our communities whether we are at university or not. With this in mind, we conducted several research surveys with the help of students, in the process also referred to reported and recorded cases of violence on campus, and consequently constructed notions of safe spaces.
For some safe spaces meant places to hide or recuperate just for a short while. For others it meant talking or sharing with someone who understands and who shows empathy. And for certain groups it meant the formation of a group or society of like-minded people where they could express themselves in all kinds of ways and knew that they will be supported. For many it just meant the knowledge that they are not alone but that there are others just like them.

With this knowledge we could make informed choices in designing safe spaces on campus. Safe spaces do not only have to be physical places of safety but also include the metaphorical. This could be social networks where lesbian and gay students could build up contacts or where they can share their frustrations, fear or joy.

We encourage students to visit the Gender Equity Unit, which we regard as the “safest” space on campus. Here they share their stories, make new and old friends and be whoever they want to be and help us shape the safe space that they are imagining. Here they plan and execute awareness-raising campaigns. We encourage all kinds of non-discriminatory behaviour and encourage critical thinking and constant debate. We constantly educate and learn from each other.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that in the creation of safe spaces should always be the inclusion of both the cognitive and the physical body for various reasons. Although the reasoning, thinking, debating and writing about all bodies are important; there is also the definite need to recognise the different experiences and needs of all the bodies.

We need the spaces where the intellectual and the emotional interconnect. We have to create spaces where we respect and treat each other with dignity. We should exercise extra vigilance and guard these spaces against abuse and disrespect. We are encouraging others to create safe spaces even if it is only by providing an opportunity to share, to talk, to cry, to laugh or to express oneself and BE without the fear of retribution.

Mary Hames works with the Gender Equity Unit University of the Western Cape. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism.



Comment on Safe spaces in higher learning

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *