This year The SOAS Spirit decided to go further in our election coverage. The SOAS Students’ Union elections can be intimidating, whether you’re a candidate or just a regular student voter. Campaigning is intense, with much of candidates’ success being weighted on who has the widest friendship circle or the best ability to produce a fun video, catchy hashtag or flashy poster. With all of this considered, we decided that the best way for students to get to know their Co-President candidates would be through in-person interviews, which we’ve presented here in the form of profiles.
Interviews by Atika Dawood, BA Arabic and Linguistics, and Mel Plant, BA Arabic and Turkish
As the co-founder of the Decolonising Our Minds Society, Neelam Chhara feels that as Equality and Liberation Co-President she will be able to continue to tackle the very issues that this position was designed for. “I can carry on doing the work I currently do [in Decolonising Our Minds] and address wider structural issues at SOAS,” she says.
Chhara will prioritise the Decolonising SOAS campaign, Justice for Cleaners and preventing ‘Prevent’, as well as introducing a SU Outreach scheme.
She ran the Saturday club in her first year, a scheme through which 14-16 year old local young people come to SOAS for a day of teaching and extra curricular activities. “These young people were all from the local community around SOAS from different state schools and a couple of youth organisations (including Love to Learn, who work with ESOL students).” Chhara believes that the SU needs to become more embedded in the local Camden and Islington communities, and plans to hold the Saturday Club every term: “SOAS students learn so much, it would be a great way for them to pass on this knowledge.”
She aims for it to also be a way to make the local community, including those from a working class or BME background who are affected by the government’s decision to cut funds to higher education, aware of SOAS and what it stands for so that they are not discouraged from applying.
Chhara says she would love to have dinner with Abida Parveen, a Sufi musician, who “perfectly encapsulates the idea of matching inner peace with outer peace.” Inspired by Parveen, she plans to run a series of events if elected Co-President, one of which is a liberation art series: from de-colonial music nights to a play with a cast fully made up of people of colour. As well as this, Chhara plans ‘an introduction to…’ series, where academics introduce different philosophers on a weekly or biweekly basis as a form of alternative knowledge.
This discussion on alternative forms of knowledge leads to the second person Chhara would dine with, Saadat Hasan Manto, a South Asian writer: “he wrote extremely witty and philosophical short stories… the stuff he got away with in the context he was writing in – so him!”
Dr. Amina Yaqin, an academic at SOAS teaching the Imagining Pakistan course, has also influenced Chhara’s belief in art as a form of resistance and culture having the power to influence politics, economics and society. “[Yaqin] is just this great Pakistani woman who has a cool story about partition and inspired me to think deeply about the wider context of things… [she is] a genuine and open person [and] encapsulates the ideas that being genuine on the inside is reflected in whatever you put into the world.”
Chhara would like to create a network of liberation campaigns and societies. She feels that many people are doing radical things at SOAS but they are rarely linked, so creating a network of societies and people who are fighting for liberation and equality will make the campaign stronger through solidarity.
She plans to represents minorities at SOAS by creating networks and working groups to highlight issues that need to be changed, and communicating with officers that “the most marginalised groups should not be marginalised in our institution.” To go above and beyond this, she plans to create and sustain an intercollegiate university movement, because “if we really do want to decolonize our universities and we believe in liberation and equality, it’s important for this movement to take place across the UK, not just at SOAS.”
There are two ways to represent minorities according to Chhara – holding cultural events, such as the ‘Decolonising Queerness’ event coming up soon, and to hold panel discussions, such as regular debates resisting the ironic nature of free speech, which is preventing the things that need to be said from being said.
The final person Chhara would have dinner with is Fanon, “because, well, it’s Fanon!”[Interview by Atika Dawood]
“I never felt I could go into the SU,” says Monna Matharu, a Study of Religions student standing for the new Co-President Liberation and Equality position, “there’s a particular group… but I decided to push my way in last year.” Matharu has been co-Working Class officer alongside Co-President Democracy and Education candidate Saul Jones this year. “It’s been a very harsh year… I want to be as optimistic as I can,” she says, considering the climate of “lots of job cuts,” “no workers rights,” and serious threats to courses, including her own, “this is why the team [at the SU] has to be so important.”
Matharu sees communication as key in making the Union more accessible for students in a year when a united student front is important. “No one predicted what would happen this year,” she says, “so we need to have a stance that makes [management] listen.” She plans to integrate student voices through online platforms (“our generation is on the internet”), such as a regular blog of SU activities, podcasts and regular surveys facilitated by liberation officers.
Without a campaign team and working two part-time jobs, Matharu is finding it hard to make time for her campaign. Ultimately, however, campaigning seems out of place for this candidate: “I’d love to see [the Co-President role] as apolitical. Politics can be discouraging. We should take a neutral perspective for the benefit of the student body.” As Co-President Equality and Liberation, she would seek to include the voices of underrepresented students in the Union process. “There are a lot of societies that get more coverage,” she says, adding that “the label of BME also means a lot of people don’t feel included.”
Matharu has a lot of priorities, but she was realistic in expressing them. Most important to her are the concrete steps that can be taken to improve marginalised students’ experiences, such as reforming mitigating circumstances procedures to pay attention to outside responsibilities (such as work and parenting) and fight the need for ‘substantial evidence.’
Care for working students and student parents is something very important to Matharu: “I want to be a point of access for students,” something it seems she herself did not have access to. Likewise, she seeks to tackle access and attainment gaps, saying there are “not enough provisions for those from different backgrounds” who are some of the first in their families to enter university. Having worked in the Saturday Club, she seeks to improve the format and increase outreach in struggling London boroughs, promoting SOAS’ out-of-the-ordinary areas of study, as well as introducing an ‘earn while you learn’ scheme in certain degree programmes.
Important in this agenda of accessibility is for Matharu to maintain a neutral role in the Union. “Things are very friendship-based and fairly uncomfortable,” she says, “I can’t identify with everyone that comes to me,” but she would seek to hear everyone out and represent all voices equally. “This role is about seeing the individual,” she says when asked how she can represent students of other Liberation groups, “and being part of a dialogue.”
Matharu’s approach to the Co-President role is informed by her time at SOAS. “Most of my friends are from outside of SOAS… [but] my favourite thing here is what is taught… being part of so many different cultures and things that can be applied to everyday life,” however, she says, “there is a bad side to this… I’ll call it misleading inclusion. Some people campaign for Justice for Cleaners but don’t clean up after themselves.”
It seems that action, more than words, is something more important to Matharu. Her favourite member of staff is Dr Antonello Palumbo, a religions of East and Central Asia professor who “can really teach.” She hesitated over inviting any one character in particular to dinner, saying “I don’t really idolise anyone.” In the end, she decided upon Karl Jung, Zadie Smith and Ambedkar.[Interview by Mel Plant]
To describe Equality and Liberation in one word, Marta Aliaga would use ‘intersectionality:’ for her, the role of Co-President is an opportunity for all under-represented students to have a voice.
Aliaga is inspired by her dissertation adviser, who is “well read but doesn’t live in his own bubble of theory.” He is very much an activist and conducts lectures in a brilliant way, highlighting the responsibility lawyers have to represent human beings. Reflecting on this she says, “it isn’t about the words, it’s about the actions – they are what define you.”
As a Law student who has been working throughout her studies as well as being active in politics, she understands that students may not have enough time to speak about issues affecting them with a strong voice or platform, or have the space or confidence to do so. For Aliaga, therefore, the Co-President role is an opportunity for these students’ voices to flourish.
In terms of the way the union runs, Aliaga believes it isn’t horizontal or democratic enough, or accessible “the people who are left behind are those from marginalised groups, there’s a structure of oppression on these groups.” She wants the SU to shift from a registered charity to a co-operative, allowing the members to have control and power over it as stakeholders. “If management is talking to us in this commercialised way, then I’m going to take power as a stakeholder of this university,” she says.
Aliaga expressed that she is not standing for the position because in order to take charge, but rather to act as an intermediary. Aliaga is wary of the fact that she is a white cis-woman, “I can read and listen to comments but I don’t have the experience… I can’t stand up and talk for marginalised groups. I can’t, and I don’t want to.” But with the help of the various Liberation officers, she hopes to be a facilitator in helping oppressed groups to shape their own policies regarding life at SOAS. Her priority, as she put it, is “to prioritise your priorities.”
She plans to introduce methods of communicating anonymously for students to put ideas forward and and to bridge gaps between students by running workshops, from twerkshops to self-defense classes, the latter which she organised as Feminist Society president.
Aliaga seeks to bring an intersectional aspect to Decolonise SOAS by introducing gender, LGBTQI+ and working class issues, amongst others. She would like to help the Events and Activities Co-President and Entertainments officer to organise events with academics and activists – from sex workers rights activists to housing activists, and everything in between.
She will prioritise preventing Prevent, the Justice for Cleaners campaign, and the fight against course cuts and ‘compulsory redundancies.’ She also wants to adjust or introduce groups and services as she feels counselling services at SOAS can be insufficient.
Focusing on Prevent, Aliaga states “we just need to make it clear to management that it is racist and xenophobic, we won’t accept SOAS staff, lecturers or outsourced workers telling on students.” Currently the SU provides a monthly document commenting on whether they have made claims on someone being radicalised and she plans to keep this communication in place so students are informed: “we must know what’s going on in the Union.”
Aliaga does not stay quiet and is very transparent. By the first day of her semester abroad in India she was already known as “that foreign exchange student who’s a feminist!” She also feels music is a strong cultural and political instrument. “It’s great to see the ceilidh band, the samba band, and all the music at SOAS because it’s something we need to use more often to reclaim certain things and liberate our souls.”[Interview by Atika Dawood]