Niki Najm-Abadi

My name is Niki, I use she/her pronouns. I am an uninvited migrant here on Coast Salish lands. I live on Squamish lands and work and study here on Musqueam lands. I am Iranian, and my intersecting identities of being a woman of colour guides a lot of my activism. At the heart of what I’ve strived to do is create space and hold safe space for folks. Arriving on campus, three or four years ago, was very isolating. That’s not just unique to my experience: I think that’s very relatable to folks. Community means something different when you’re marginalized; you face risks and persecutions on a campus like UBC. My organizing has always, first and foremost, wanted to create a space that bridges difference for folks. A lot of that is guided by my lived experience, but it’s also guided by the experience of other brilliant folks —women of colour, non-binary folks of colour— that want to help make it happen.

Another thing that’s always been at the forefront of it has been including anti-racism in fighting for gender-based justice because of how important it is that we fight for gender-based justice through the methods of racialized women, and specifically Indigenous and Black women, by using decolonial tactics.

I’ve organized with the Women’s Centre for three years now, and am co-president. I also work at the UBC/AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre. At the SASC, I do outreach and education. A lot of my work is providing education and helping other folks facilitate space that is survivor-centric and intersectional in their approach to fighting sexualized violence and rape culture. At the Women’s Center, we believe having resources is a good way of addressing some of the needs of our community. We also organize consciousness raising sessions. We provide people with discount (if not free) diva cups (sustainable menstrual products), other forms of menstrual products, condoms, pregnancy tests.

Sexualized violence, as it relates to gender and other intersecting oppressions

Statistically-speaking, sexualized violence affects folks intersectionally. That is to say, folks facing gender-based oppression, women, particularly Trans women and non-binary, two-spirit folks, face much, much higher rates of sexualized violence then do their counterparts. That’s not to say that sexual assault doesn’t affect everyone —I’m a firm believer that it does. But it affects other folks, especially those with facing gender-based oppression, at much higher rates. And it affects them differently: in the context of living on unceded lands, and in the context of colonialism, rape culture is used as a weapon through colonialism to gain power and land. Indigenous women face sexual violence precisely because they are Indigenous women; it is because the colonizers are trying to get the land and to get resources. We see the ramifications of that and in so many different areas in how it’s Indigenous women that face these statistics –higher, obviously– but it’s also how, even now, with the cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, we see that this sort of violence just gets erased. The State has remained completely silent on that issue – no investigations, no offering resources to stop or lessen these harms. So even if sexualized violence gets addressed, like it has been in movements like the #MeToo movement, it’s a very specific type of woman’s voice that gets heard. The voices that are centered are usually cis-gender white women.

This is what the SASC begins to address with its work, though this is not to say that we can address things as broad and as deeply rooted as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The SASC operates from a gender-inclusive, intersectional, survivor-centric framework. Having a staff that are predominantly of colour or queer women of colour helps with addressing the needs of survivors when they come seek support within the space. In my education work, I facilitate education from the position of someone with lived experience, who can relate to those issues a little bit more. It helps makes education more intersectional, it makes learning more community-based.

From healing through space held, to holding space for healing

I stumbled upon this work right at the beginning my second year when I walked into a consciousness-raising session at the Women’s Center. At the time, I had been really desperate for community, a sense of belonging on campus. It was because the Women’s Center was, back then as it continues to be now, pivotal for me through its bringing together of all of these incredible women. That particular session’s theme was caregiving and motherhood. We got to talk about how gender has played a role from a young age until now through caregiving. This had such a powerful impact on me that I thought “if I can do that, even giving an increment of what was given to me, to students or folks that were also looking as desperately for space as I was, then I will have done my job right.”

Being able to openly talk about these things not only creates community, it develops political consciousness. You can think about ideas that you’ve might’ve never thought about before. Seeds get planted in your head that you would’ve never been exposed to, had community not been held like that, had open and safe space not been held like that.

At the SASC, holding space is extremely important too. Having a safe space for a Sexual Assault Support Centre is one of the first and most basic steps: confidentiality needs to be practiced in order for a consent culture to happen, even a little bit. It is important to hold space for collaboration. Collaborative efforts enable a space for people to talk about all these issues that they’ve gone through. So often, that’s how healing through trauma happens. That’s how it happened for me. That’s what I hope to accomplish.

Addressing some of our needs on our own terms, with our voices, within a space that can first and foremost validate ourselves, hold ourselves, and foster ourselves. All of this, so we can heal and begin organizing and addressing some of these issues, from our own selves.

Community action for all kinds of women

In the second term of my second year was when the visa ban happened. When the Trump administration put forward what is colloquially known as the visa ban, and my country was one that was affected by it. If consciousness raising was what brought me to healing with my own self, that event, the visa ban, is what sprung me forward in terms of community action.

I felt inspired, that was what lit the fire. I thought: “I have to do something.” I reached out to two friends of mine. I told them, “we have to do something, we have to do something. I can’t sit here and do nothing.”

We created a protest outside of the U.S. consulate protesting this and we heard various speakers – community-based, Black, Indigenous, migrant voices, we had hijabi women, we had folks from the Social Justice Center, we had poetry, we had all these different voices and addressed some of these needs. The media covered it because it was one of the larger protests happening against the visa ban. I felt so much, the community response was so wonderful. That year was when it snowed really hard, the weather was horrendous, yet people still came out. We were all freezing in the snow. But we did something together as a collective. Those two really crucial moments in my second year were at the heart of bringing me towards the anti-racist and anti-patriarchal work that I do.

I want to preface this section by saying that I’m a cis-gender person so there’s only so much that I can speak to from my experience, but a lot of gender-based movements are extremely trans-exclusive. Denying services and space to Trans folks creates huge amounts of violence, most notably towards Two-Spirit communities. This exclusion itself is colonial. By denying access to folks that are Trans, one is oftentimes also denying services to folks that are sex workers. Again, this is colonial interaction because of intersections of violence: it is often Indigenous women that are forced into sex work. This is why the work of the SASC is so important– because it’s one of the only trans-inclusive spaces that offer support services to folks of all genders, regardless of identities. Actually, no questions about that even get asked.

Independence and interdependence in our work

The Women’s Centre is part of the Resource Groups Collective. What I really like about the Resource Groups is that we work together and bridge our differences; our issues become interconnected. In fighting gender-based oppression, our struggle often gets relegated to just gender-based oppression, it doesn’t become connected to all of these other issues. What happens is a kind of erasure of the ways that gender-based oppression is rooted in all sorts of other oppressions.

At the Women’s Centre, we are connected to Pride, we are connected to Colour Connected Against Racism, we are connected to the Social Justice Centre and the Student Environment Centre. This makes our organizing that much more effective, we begin addressing all issues, intersectionally, interconnectedly, and not in artificially siloed terms.

SASC has been engaging the local community for 16 years. For 16 years, the SASC has been doing the work of addressing oppressions from the grassroots and independent perspective. Although we function as a part of the AMS, we get to address things from a non-institutional perspective: we are not a UBC perspective, not a government-funded initiative. This independence is unique –all of our funding comes from student fees which positions us in a place of not having to worry about vested interests from our funding source. The SASC’s space is open to anybody. You can be a parent supporting a survivor. You can be a friend supporting a survivor. You can be a perpetrator who has realized you’ve done something wrong, but you didn’t know you did something wrong, and you can still go in and seek support and find out ways to make your own justice happen in whatever ways possible.

We don’t have to play by institutional agendas. We get to address things from our own perspectives –the same is the case with the Women’s Center. Funding comes from student fees and we, as a Resource Groups Collective decide where it gets to be spent on. Just like the SASC, our space is open to anybody and everybody. You don’t have to be a student to access to services. Nobody is ever going to check whether or not you’re a student; so you can be anybody.

This independence within community-based activism is crucial. Oftentimes, activism is tied to business or corporate NGOs that have agendas in terms of wanting to make profit for themselves. Neither the SASC nor the Women’s Center are for profit. That concern being out of the window, positions us in a place of actually being able to address the needs of our communities, as opposed to satisfying our donors or institutional ties. I believe that it’s much more helpful to first start with addressing community needs, which can influence leadership on other community needs, and so on and so forth. Things getting done on our terms can have a global impact.

Our interdependence allows us to bring an anti-oppression framework to local work. I think through beginning from this local perspective that’s how you get to the global; I’ve always been a believer in a bottom-up approach to justice. Through grassroots we can move towards global futures.

UBC working against gender oppression

UBC is an academic institution, though there are many other ways to look at it. Yet, academically, the syllabi that we get handed, the materials that we learn about and read about are themselves not very gender-inclusive.

To me, it has always been important to highlight through pedagogy the voices of queer and racialized women, and non-binary folks. That’s where it starts. Pedagogy is a political choice: what and how will you teach your students? You professors have the tremendous power to change an individual student’s or an entire classrooms’ mind, or shift their perspectives. By including on your syllabus the voices, works and theories of marginalized folks —including women and non-binary folks, especially Black and Indigenous folks— you foster decolonial learning from an early age. White European men are not the end-all and be-all of theory and thinking. This is why the Women Deliver conference is a really good idea because it also begins with like holding —like I said— spaces where we include the voices of folks that are marginalized in the academy.

I believe in discursively shifting academia’s focus away from creating this one notion of what is knowledge. What is widely considered as knowledge is Eurocentric and embedded in white supremacy, patriarchy and especially colonialism. We should hold this space so that we might begin to accept other forms of knowledge too.

At the SASC I work in education. What I think is really unique about education is that people come to you with what they need from you. Obviously, you can’t provide absolutely everything. But you can do it to the best of your ability, you can help them achieve what they want to achieve. Working in education it puts me in a position where I can ask: what does your community need? These communities are in communication with me, they let me know what they want and then using the resources of the SASC, the Women’s Center, my own knowledge, and other forms of knowledge, I can begin to address those needs.