Never before has it felt so pressing for women, people of colour, trans, non-binary and queer folks – people who are (too) often in the minority – to have spaces to convene, speak freely, share stories and just be. These spaces, and the people who bring them alive, can be a lifeline. In offering a place of belonging, griefs can be shared, joys celebrated and connections made. But the creation and support of these safe, safer and brave spaces is anything but straightforward.
In a series of voice notes recorded in time snatched from frenetic schedules, Ouassima Laabich-Mansour spoke with Elena Silvestrini from Chayn Italia, a feminist platform that fights gender-based violence through digital tools and collaborative practices, and Abir Ghattas from HammamRadio, a feminist participatory radio station spreading joy for womxn across the Middle East and beyond. Both are fellows on The New New and came to the conversation with longstanding, active involvement in establishing, shaping and nurturing these spaces.
As will become clear from their words, these spaces are complex, evolving sites of radical empathy and ongoing negotiation that can demand a lot from the people within them, but which give back in abundance.
Let’s start with the idea of spaces, because it can be loosely defined. They can be online, offline, a mix of both, and for me, the definition would have to do with the experiences you go through in these spaces. They make you feel good, comfortable, honest. You don’t have to hide or assess risk. And when you talk about community – there is not one community. It depends on who we are, where we are, what we’re talking about. I don’t think spaces are defined in terms of identities. Identity is one aspect of it, and it’s one aspect that makes a community, but it’s not the only thing. So for me, safer spaces in the context of HammamRadio is where women, queer folks, trans folks, non-binary folks can enter and feel the place belongs to them. They don’t have anything to prove and they don’t seek anyone’s approval. They don’t have to look over their shoulder. It’s a place where they can express themselves, in any way they want to. That’s for me what makes a safer space.
When I think about organizing these spaces, I look at feminist movements and organizations that started in Lebanon. My references are always my other experiences, which are shared experiences within collectives, within groups of people, that involve both the public and the private sphere. In the context of HammamRadio, when we say how and with whom – with whom is the first group that started Hammam. But it goes beyond that – because after we started it, we asked for feedback which we took into consideration. (It wasn’t just a technical exercise.) I also think “organizing” is a very big word. We apply it loosely in the sense that as long as we are honest to the values under which we created the space, we need little organization. Things are clear. And for people coming into the space, there is clear agreement about its values and no tolerance for breaking them. The space kind of organizes itself.
The whole idea around HammamRadio is that it’s a space where we are not lecturing, we are not coming from an expert point view. Instead, we want to learn by telling stories. We want to connect by hearing other people’s stories. We want to hear these stories, go into them and continue to tell them. We want to listen to other people’s ideas of what the story is.
We also realise that there is not much on intersectional feminism in the Arab world that is not academic, that’s actually about the movement and the taboo issues that we address. There is very little written which is not by a man or someone who is white who does not belong to these lived experiences and isn’t coming to it with a colonialist eye – or a fetishized, westernized view of our stories. So when we thought of archiving our programmes, it was not in the sense of an anthropological kind of implementation. It was more from the perspective of documenting our stories, because by keeping a copy and sharing these unedited, very candid stories, you reclaim your space, you reclaim the narrative. And by reclaiming your story, you actually gain more power. There is a space, and people are waiting for you to speak, and they will say it after you. And I think that by itself is very powerful.
In the long term, I think HammamRadio is creating a kind of courageousness which hopefully becomes infectious. There is consensus that we need more of these stories, but there is also fear. Who will start, who will share their story and speak first? And right now, there is a bunch of women who are deciding to talk, which means we are also destroying this superhero rock-star narrative where it is only the same faces talking. No! It is everybody sharing their stories – about their mothers, their grandmothers, about how they grew up, their taboos, their problems, their political ideas, the music they listen to, the sex they have, the ideas they have… And that’s what we are trying to accomplish.
I have been thinking a lot about the concept and practices safer spaces and brave spaces, especially in my practice as a group facilitator. My reflections are embedded in the queer feminist community that I’ve been lucky enough to be part of for many years now and is definitely one of the biggest sources of inspiration, and a reality check, beyond idealisation. They’re also influenced by my work at Chayn Italia, especially around gender-based violence. And of course, I speak from my situated knowledge and lived experience as a white, European, queer economic migrant within the EU, who belongs to queer and feminist communities – that is important to say.
A key aspect is the extent to which people feel part of a group and actively participate in its life, which has a lot to do with safety, relationships and power, especially with regard to being more or less privileged within the group. People need to feel legitimised and not in fear of discriminatory attitudes and actions or in physical or symbolic danger. They should be able to express opinions and emotions, share stories and show vulnerability, and not be questioned for their identity or assigned to one. There’s a lot to say about this idea, which all surely depends on the experiences and identities of the individual people and the communities they are part of.
Together with my friend and comrade, anti-racism activist Nadia Nadesan, in the context of our work at the Spanish participation and techno-politics organization Platoniq, we’ve been developing frameworks for how we can think about safer spaces. Our reflections can be summarised in five points:
1. No harm – meaning there is a commitment to eliminating physical, emotional or mental harm when participating in a group settings or process.
2. Accessibility – taking into account the material and immaterial barriers that are involved in participation and evaluating their impact.
3. Participating and sharing space – creating conditions in which one can speak freely and closer to one’s own voice.
4. The ability to self-organize and set the agenda.
5. Purpose – being able to set this for the group.
And here I come to one of the central reflections that we developed together: there is no one definition of safety. Safety depends on experiences of power, in terms of identity, being able to cross spaces and heterogenous lived experience. No one can decide what safety is for someone else. And that brings me to another key point: I don’t think there is a static notion of safety in a group. There is not a static or binary notion of safe and unsafe – it is an ongoing and relational effort, a shared responsibility. Safer spaces are relational works of cultivation, active creations. The group negotiates and updates agreements and reflections on what safety is for them. And if the group works with a facilitator, this adds another layer of complexity, although I think a facilitator is important in visibilising power relations and dynamics. I think it is super important that the group itself engages with this shared responsibility and is aware of interdependencies and safety as a process, not as an outcome.
I had the opportunity to engage with my comrade and friend Giada Bonu looking at how different feminist safer spaces are created. She found that political communities are based on complicity and empathy beyond the blood-tie: these relationships build the space. The security of feminist spaces is the security of relationships, of community. I really like this reflection: our relationships create safety and build spaces. Also, how it builds on queer, feminist and anti-racist community practices: the awareness that there is high connection in human relationships. One is never fully autonomous or independent.
Different variables also come into the creation and functionality of safer spaces. It’s highly dependent on the length of time the group has already been together – a one-off workshop or a collective that’s worked together for years. It also depends on the group culture. Are we talking about a corporate environment, a grassroots setting, that sort of thing. And of course, the size of the group – the self-regulation is different and the extent to which people can support each other.
Operating in a transnational setting, an important aspect is also the untranslatability of the concept of safety. In Italian and Spanish there is no separate word for “security” and “safety”. We use “seguridad” or “sicurezza” and both are closer to concepts of security, which is, in Italy for example, used in restrictive political laws and policing. So in Italian feminist communities, we often use the English term “safe” rather than “sicuro” to avoid these implications. But what does safe mean if it is not policing, setting rules and prescribing conditions? Rather, it’s engaging in relational care and efforts. In terms of lessons learned, which I guess is very personal, it’s not to idealise the concept of safe. Saying “safer” is already a step towards this. For me it is also important to think of the consequences for movements and collectives when something is deemed safe or unsafe, and not use the concept lightly.
Another lesson I’ve learned is to be upfront with the group about the intention to create collective agreements and be able to update them. Circumstances change, the group life changes, people come and go. Have people appointed on a rotational basis as emotional radars for if someone needs support, taking into account different lived experiences and especially if they’re in a minority. Invite people to be brave while experiencing discomfort and unlearning privilege – because that requires work. In this sense, a lot of people are talking about “brave spaces” instead of “safer spaces” and I’m interested in continuing this conversation. And also, and this may sound naïve, being gentle. When it doesn’t require too much from people who are oppressed, having a calling-in attitude rather than calling-out attitude can help people grow and learn from one another. Like everything else, it is easier said than done!
So in closing, for me it is less about prescribing rules and conditions of how to create safety and instead actively engaging with the question: How are we present in this relational effort in constructing more safe space together?