By Alvira Ashraf
Consumed, outraged, and disgraced by recent cases of sexual harassment and violence against women, as seen in the tragedies of Sarah Everard and Blessing Olusegun, I wanted to stand up and do something.
We often read in the news, hear from a friend, or perhaps even witness in person, heartbreaking stories of sexual harassment, assault and violence. Yet, we are merely made aware of this reality, and rarely ever truly engage with the news, especially not in the long-term. At most, many of us will utter a pitiful, “what a shame!” or “such terrible news…”, or that we “wish there was something I could do to help”, but these lamenting complaints are the bare minimum when it comes to making any impact. I, Rachael, Sacdiyo and Sabrina M wanted to do more, and take on an active role in addressing misogynistic issues within our school community.
The first step to this was to communicate with each other. We spoke to Rachael, as our trusted student president, and expressed our concerns and compulsions to make a change. A meeting was arranged with Mr. Clark, with whom we initially discussed the ways in which we could promote our cause in school. Although the topic is complex and multifaceted, we were granted half an hour of the pastoral session on Thursday the 25th of March to use our voices against the pressing matters of sexual harassment.
We assigned ourselves various roles, each specialising in smaller aspects of the overall task. I produced some posters to put up around school, attracting attention from wandering eyes of students and staff walking around. Others helped to put them up, promoted the cause on social media to get the word out, dealt with the charity and fundraising, and each of us worked together to create the presentation that was to be shown in each form and presented by a member of each class.
Under the pressure of time management and acutely aware of the fact that we had only up to four days to plan the event, we worked hard to organise everything in time, but had actually completed a drafted presentation, designed posters, decided upon a charity (The Survivor’s Trust), and most importantly, grabbed people’s attention by Monday night. On Tuesday, Rachael and I briefly visited each form class, explaining our intentions, asking people to come to school wearing red, and requesting that they bring some money for the charity. Crucially, we needed a representative from each class to lead the discussion, as we believed the biggest impact would be felt if the messages came directly from a classmate, even a friend, instead of a teacher, who may not have been as in touch with the adolescent mindset as other adolescents.
By Wednesday, most tasks were completed, the school definitely knew what was expected, and the four of us anxiously awaited the next day, with a unique feeling best described as a mix of nervousness, excitement, and immense pride in ourselves. We completed some finishing touches on the presentation, and ran through it one more time, ready to be shown to Year 12s. This presentation defined terms such as “sexual harassment”, “sexual assault”, “rape”, and “consent”, with a focus on what consent was, as this is a term with plenty of misconceptions around it, and it is of utmost importance that we all understand what consent is in order to engage in healthy sexual relationships, recognise unacceptable behaviour, and understand how to give and receive consent without making any harmful assumptions.
The presentation also consisted of a discussion around the research recently published by UN Women UK, which states that 97% of women in the UK have been sexually harassed, what constitutes sexual harassment, and the causes of it. Importantly, we discussed rape culture, and asserted that each of us, whether inentionally or not, contribute in some way to rape culture, whether it be through objectifying banter, victim-blaming or verbal harassment, while also reinforcing the idea that it is possible to change our ways and overcome these barriers to societal progression.
Another aspect of arranging the presentation was speaking to survivors, one male and one female, both of whom offered their views on the matter, expressing “what they would want us to know”. These messages, to say the least, startled and disheartened the class, who heard the first-hand advice of survivors of sexual assault. These messages were clearly powerful, having filled the room with silence, and plastering frowns across the faces of students as they listened attentively. The overall messages were that both females and males could be victims, and neither should be treated differently on the basis of gender, and that consent could be revoked at any point during sex, and if this happens to be the case, it is the individual responsibility of all parties to respect the others’ wishes, and stop. Feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment were expressed, but there was a sharp focus on encouraging victims to seek the help they deserve.
The plan was set, and executed wonderfully. The school building was populated with students and staff wearing red, showing allyship and advocating for the cause. Money was collected from each class, and people were generous in their charity. There was a unifying sense of pride and empowerment across the genders and age groups as the school came together to make a statement.
Comments made on opinion polls asking LAET students to share what they thought of #wearredthursday included:
“I think it was really successful, and I enjoyed it so much -- we should do things like this more!”
“I think loads of people came in wearing red and donated, so success!”
“I loved the amount of people who actually participated; gives me hope.”
“I had such a good talk with some boys in my form about how they can stop participating in rape culture and they took their time to listen to me and ask what was right and wrong. They all started thinking about it, and it was very much a success.”
I encourage all of you to continue these important conversations with an open mind and consideration for other perspectives, as social stigma and silence are central to the issue of sexual harassment.