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28th November 2023

“More than just a march”: Interview with Aisha Akram ahead of Reclaim

Ahead of the Reclaim the Night march on 29 November, we sat down with the Aisha Akram Students’ Union’s Wellbeing and Liberation officer, to talk about the event, its meaning, and her wider goals for the values of Reclaim
“More than just a march”: Interview with Aisha Akram ahead of Reclaim
Photo: Shikhar Talwar @ The Mancunion

Content warning: mentions of sexual assault 

Whilst here in Manchester, Reclaim is a widely known event, I asked Aisha how she would describe it to those unaware: “Reclaim is our annual campaign against gender-based violence.” It’s aim is to “raise awareness about gender-based violence” in all its forms.

Aisha particularly stressed the importance of recognising violence against trans people as part of this, talking to me the day after trans day of remembrance: “it is important to recognise that violence against trans people is violence too.”

Recalling her time as a student, Aisha talked about her own experience with Reclaim: “Before I came into the role I knew what Reclaim was, I knew it was a march, I did attend it a few years back. […] I thought when I come into the role I wanted to bring in more tangible things that we can do as an institution.”

These “tangible” changes include the Students’ Union’s push for a consent module, something introduced by Aisha’s predecessor Celina Pereira: “Celina last year did a lot of work with advice and response into creating a consent module. So it is in progress, due to be rolled out soon.”

Student experience and opinion fall at the centre of Aisha’s hopes for this module: “I have been talking to different student groups […] students that are really focused on the area of sexual violence and harassment.” “We wanted it to be a co-created module,” she said, created by students, rather than just the University.

The Reclaim march will occur on Wednesday November 29, and will follow a new route set out by Aisha and the Exec team at the Students’ Union: the “march is great for raising awareness and having a collective call to action,” Aisha stated.

The new city-wide route hopes to encourage both the University and city to get involved. Aisha stressed that this is an issue wider than students and “it is more than just a march. A lot of the time people think that Reclaim stops at the march, but there are things to be done before, and things that can be done after.”

But with the new route starting at the Students’ Union rather than Fallowfield, Aisha didn’t seem concerned with turn-out, which was around 1000 last year. Aisha said that, this year, “a lot more charities [are] involved, a lot more small business, we’re getting other universities involved” so she is “hoping for a bigger turn out.”

The theme this year is ‘Convince Me Not’. “We decided on Convince Me Not,” said Aisha, “because with the issue of sexual coercion and coercive control in general was something that is incredibly stigmatised still.” Like the consent module, Aisha stressed the input of “multiple student groups” in coming up with what the Executive Officers, or ‘Execs’ hope is a clear message and “raise[s] awareness about the different signs of coercion.”

She continued, “it is a stigmatised topic, and a lot of the time people don’t understand the signs of it.” But the theme itself also takes caution dealing with the topic: “I thought it was a clear message to roll out to students […] and a way to have a phrase that we could use to promote the message without explicitly saying coercion for trigger purposes.”

As a student, Aisha pushed for trigger warnings to be used in one of her lectures, something she felt was important: “it was a simple action we can take.” “Any time I post anything that could possibly be triggering I take a minute and basically decide to put a trigger warning on because it takes one second.”

The theme of student input was a continuous theme throughout our conversation, as we talked about Aisha’s aim to get student opinion early this year, asking ‘How can we tackle sexual assault and harassment at uni?’. When asked about the responses that mentioned getting venues to be more aware of sexual assault, Aisha emphasised some of her focuses for semester two, including “encouraging more businesses to sign up to the Women’s Night-time Safety Charter,” a Manchester City Council initiative, aimed at employers, to prioritise the safety of women in the night-time workplaces.

And Aisha herself showed that Reclaim is more than a march, telling me that she is soon “undergoing the training” of the Women’s Night-time Safety Charter.

She went on to promote the Good night out guide, something started by former Liberation & Access Officer, Emily Bennett in 2021: “it’s important for students to know if they’re attending a venue that is going to be safe.”

But she admitted that Reclaim is “not perfect” when facing the challenge of dealing with a target demographic that needs to be educated. Whilst in contact with Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), as well as pushing for the messages of Reclaim to reach those needed, Aisha stressed that reaching those who need to listen is a target that still needs to be reached: “it will take a cultural shift for that to happen.”

And the University itself has “work to be done” in terms of adopting the messages of Reclaim. When asked how she felt that the University currently has the cup of tea consent video on their website, Aisha said “I mean, it’s not the best, but it’s a start of them thinking of the process and what students go through. It’s a start, but obviously there’s work to be done in that area.” She hoped that the consent module will bring these changes into the University more widely.

The march is just one way in which students can get involved in Reclaim. On November 20, Aisha hosted a Creative showcase to fund Reclaim and emphasise its values. “In my opinion,” she stated, “student stories and student expression is the best way to hear what they have to say. We had like spoken word, burlesque, which is all about people taking control of their body […] also share the message of what reclaim is about – taking back ownership of your body.”

For Aisha “It was important to have those students, hear those stories.” Coming into her role, Aisha knew she wanted ”more student stories available, because it’s the most powerful thing,” something the showcase saw come to fruition.

Beyond Reclaim, Aisha expressed her desire to replace the Ask Angela scheme in venues across the city. Whilst she acknowledged its efforts, it seemed to be an “outdated approach” as it has become widely-known, including by the perpetrators it aimed to help against. She circulated new ideas, such as a “faux credit card that you could give into bars”, but emphasised that she is “down for suggestions,” again stressing her desire for student involvement.

Reclaim seems to be much more than a “just a march,” and changes driven by the Students’ Union definitely appear to be on the horizon.

The full interview will soon be available on Fuse TV.

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