By Deborah Hernandez and Ramna Shahzad
According to Oberlin College and Conservatory, “safe spaces can be defined as spaces that are created of, by and for members of marginalized or under-represented social groupings.” Safe spaces allow members of marginalized groups to exist outside of prejudice and oppression that is otherwise upheld as a social norm.
The Ryersonian spoke with Ryerson students from marginalized groups about what safe spaces mean to them, what they may look like and how the university setting has shaped their experiences.
Fifth year business management
Roushon Chowdhury often felt insecure about her position in her circle of friends back in high school.
“We were friends, but there was a disconnect,” Chowdhury says. “In the back of my head, I always wondered if these girls really liked me, or are they just tolerating me.”
Chowdhury, a brown Muslim girl, attended an all-girls Catholic high school in Toronto. The majority of students were Filipina or Portuguese, so there were no other girls who shared Chowdhury’s cultural background.
The fifth-year business student says she felt more like an observer within her group of friends, as she never truly was part of their culture or activities. She felt especially alone during Ramadan, when she would be the only person in her high school fasting. Chowdhury also says she felt like she couldn’t discuss sensitive topics related to religion, race or privilege with friends during her high school experience.
But when she started going to Ryerson, she found many brown Muslim girls who shared and understood her identity.
Now, Chowdhury says she feels like she can talk about anything with her Ryerson friends without fear of judgment since they relate to her and share similar experiences. Instead of expressing shock or surprise when she talks about her cultural traditions, her friends have similar views.
“There’s no longer this sense of insecurity, compared to my high school friendships.”
Third year social work
For Tara Farahani, a safe space on campus means coming together with others in a diverse space where she feels invited and accepted. It also means finding a space where she can connect with individuals who share her perspectives and have had similar experiences. For her, it is a place where students can communicate openly and comfortably, without the fear of judgment or disregard.
Farahani says she is a person of different interconnected identities.
“I am an Iranian, queer female, amongst other things,” Farahani says. “When I enter a space, I want to be able to bring my whole self into a room.”
The third-year social work student says she constantly seeks out safe spaces around campus, and many times she has found them in a classroom. She has been able to take the friendships she has made in these spaces off-campus as well. “With these groups of people, I have felt safe to share and listen free of judgment and with an ability to be true to myself,” she says.
Farahani defines a safe space broadly. She thinks it does not necessarily have to be a group or initiative. To her, the concept of a safe space needs to be all around her, not limited to smaller pockets.
The need for such an environment is why Farahani justifies exclusive groups for people of colour, people of the LGBTQ community and for others who feel marginalized.
“In a society where persons of particular identities are continually systemically unacknowledged, having a safe space to breed nurture, care and a sense of belonging is absolutely vital,” Farahani says.
Master’s of professional communication
Monica Batac, a master’s student at the school of professional communication, says the term “safe space” is strange for her to define because it seems to “imply and emphasize the physical or temporal.”
To her, a safe space is not simply a room or an office: they are relationships people build, groups people form and communities they join that help them feel supported. She says the space could mean something different for each person.
As a student and a teacher, Batac says dealing with the tensions she experiences on a daily basis is hard work. She says she feels fortunate to have friends and supporters who help her deal with her experiences as a woman, a master’s student, a second-generation immigrant, and a Filipina-Canadian.
“(This could) mean chats and cries behind closed doors of our student lounge or one-on-one for coffee with a professor, or publicly with a larger group,” Batac says. “It’s celebrating victories together and supporting each other through challenging experiences that tell us we’re misunderstood, ill-equipped to succeed, or out of place here at the university.”
Batac says she feels the need for safe spaces as a person who is a visible minority. She says her visible identity shapes the way the rest of the world responds and interacts with her and that her upbringing, family history, and ethnic community’s experiences in Canada all affect the way she navigates university spaces.
“Safe spaces include listeners, allies, comrades, and supporters who can help us unpack, negotiate and navigate through the challenges we face outside of these safe spaces,” Batac says. “In the university, many marginalized students, staff, and faculty would say safe spaces are a big deal.”
“That includes students of colour.”
Fourth year business management
Jaffrey is a Pakistani-Canadian student at Ryerson and a Muslim woman who wears a hijab. During her first year at Ryerson, she says she did not have a friend who was similar to her in these ways.
She describes her transition from high school to university as “rough.”
“As a practising Muslim, I pray as often as I can,” Jaffrey said. “Other friends are understanding and accepting, but I had to go through it alone.”
She says she felt alienation, loneliness and fear, without friends at school who understood exactly what she was going through. But this changed when she joined the Muslim Students’ Association and found people she could identify with.
Jaffrey says she finally had friends she could pray with, and she found these spaces and experiences comforting. She also found that she finally had friends she could talk to about the issues surrounding the hijab — her other friends would not have understood.
“It makes it easier to go through any experiences, even negative ones, as long as you have other people who have gone through the same thing,” she says.
“That way you can come up with solutions together.”
Fourth year journalism
Hana Shafi, a fourth-year journalism student, defines a safe space on campus as a place where “marginalized people can meet without having their experiences ignored or invalidated by those more privileged than them.”
For her, examples of such places could mean a space that is only for women, a space only for racialized students, or a space for transgender students.
“I have definitely felt the need for a safe space on campus,” Shafi says. “We are a diverse school, but that does not mean that racism or other forms of discrimination are non-existent — in fact, they are disturbingly prevalent.”
Shafi stresses the need for safe spaces so those who feel marginalized and seek them can voice their opinions without fear. She says safe spaces includes one for racialized students, where they can be with each other and relate through conversation about racialized experiences, without being interrupted or talked over. Shafi adds that the media can often find it difficult to understand this concept and, whether intentionally or not, they “serve the dominant powers and the privileged.”
She says she has experienced the benefits of such a safe environment first-hand. She attended a “Feminism 101” meeting, a safe space for those who identify as women. “It felt really amazing to speak about my experiences with sexism without a man interjecting,” Shafi says. “I felt accepted.”