Along with Co-Campaign Directors Stella Maris and Leonie Malin, Annie Smith interviews 2020 Rector Election candidate Leyla Hussein. Explaining why Ms Hussein is the best candidate for the role, they highlight key points in her manifesto and outline her campaign strategy.
Who is Leyla Hussein?
Leyla Hussein is a British psychotherapist and social activist. She has founded Dahlia project, aimed at supporting women and girls who are survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM), and has co-founded the Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organisation that works to protect girls and young women who are at risk from FGM.
Ms Hussein serves as the Chief Executive of Hawa’s Haven, a coalition of Somali women activists raising awareness on gender-based violence, and she serves as the global ambassador for The Girl Generation, a social change programme aimed at ending FGM in one generation, currently working in ten African countries. She has also founded Safe Spaces for Black Women, a global network of black women building wellbeing communities.
Ms Hussein and her campaign team have produced an 18-page manifesto with three key themes: access, action, and accountability.
In terms of access, Ms Hussein hopes to create a fair and just St Andrews by creating safe and accessible spaces for everyone, demanding a more affordable accommodation system, and increasing mental health support within the St Andrews community. She also hopes to tackle issues of racial diversity and discrimination in St Andrews, along with representation for students with disabilities, the LGBTQIA+ community, and students with socioeconomic disadvantages.
‘Action’ centres on developing transparency between the University and student community, amplifying student voices and activism, and ensuring sustainability.
Speaking about accountability, Ms Hussein draws attention to current events such as St Andrews Survivors and COVID-19, and states that she will strive to achieve justice for survivors of sexual assault and tackle the uncertainty with COVID-19 guidance.
Speaking on the manifesto, Campaign Co-Director Leonie Malin noted that the campaign and Ms Hussein co-wrote it with the 93% Club, St Andrews Survivors, and past Students’ Association President Jamie Rodney, adding, “It’s not just about the manifesto as a policy; it’s about having the people who know what they need and know what they want changed writing it and understanding it.”
Campaign Co-Director Stella Maris also noted the power of getting her ideas for change in a manifesto and out into the mainstream: “When I first came to this university I had to deal with the reality of being one of very few black students at the University. For the last three-and-a-half years I’ve been pushing for change; I’ve been pushing for more recognition on issues.
“I wasn’t being listened to before, I wasn’t being engaged with before, and this campaign definitely gave me the opportunity to incorporate ideas into this manifesto and things I’m passionate about.”
Several members of the Rectors’ Committee, and eventual leaders of the Leyla Hussein for Rector campaign, originally learned of Ms Hussein’s work when she visited St Andrews in February 2020 to screen her documentary, “The Cruel Cut”, as part of the Rector’s Inspire Series with influential speakers.
The prospective campaign team arranged a call with Ms Hussein at the end of July, where they talked about the role, what the Rector can do in St Andrews, and the issues St Andrews is currently facing.
Ms Malin noted of the first interview, “She was super engaging on the issues we were bringing up. She was genuinely upset talking about the issues we were bringing up like St Andrews Survivors, the issues with diversity at the University, and the lack of representation. From then, the campaign kind of began and blossomed, and became what it is today.”
Ms Hussein initially thought the students were “crazy” when they approached her about the Rector position.
She told The Saint, “To me, St Andrews represents another bubble of everything being perfect and it’s for privileged people, not where black women like myself are even allowed to be in such a space, but that’s why they contacted me.”
She knew she wanted to campaign to be the next Rector “within the first 15 minutes”, initially drawn in because of the diversity of the campaigning team.
She noted, “It wasn’t all black; it wasn’t all white; it wasn’t all men. Whenever I talk about the campaigning team now, I say it’s the world I wish I lived in, because that’s how the world should be, mixed like that, and [with] the respect they all have between each other.”
The team also told Ms Hussein that they should be the University’s third female Rector, and its first black woman Rector. While Ms Hussein noted her disappointment that it has taken until 2020 to possibly achieve this, she told the campaign team, “Okay then, let’s be a part of history.”
Ms Hussein also noted that she was drawn to the rectorship at St Andrews because “St Andrews is a bubble that needs to be bursted a little bit.”
She added, “Big change needs to happen, and I would actually like to be a part of that.” She wants the change to not only occur at St Andrews but to also be a ‘place of example to other universities.’
In terms of campaign strategy, the team noted that their strategy changed over the last couple of weeks when the Fiona Hill for Rector campaign launched their campaign a week early, although that was allowed under the guidelines for pre-campaigning.
Ms Maris said, “Our initial strategy was to focus on raising awareness for the role of the rector in the community, raising awareness of the rectors elections coming up, and what the rector could do for the community; and very quickly we had to transition to posting about our candidate.”
The team noted that they have been organising the campaign since the summer, meaning they had ‘the structure of our campaign set out so that we could mobilise very quickly.”
Their Facebook page, @LeylaForRector, currently has over 1,000 likes, and their Instagram @leylaforector has over 430 followers. The campaign includes video explanations of manifesto points from Ms Hussein herself, a live Q&A via Instagram Live that took place on Monday 12 October, and a purple theme throughout the posts, Ms Hussein’s favourite colour.
Ms Hussein told The Saint that with her as Rector, “We’re going to have very difficult conversations; we’re going to get uncomfortable. But like I’ve said many times, getting uncomfortable is the best thing we can do. It means we’re going to start shifting our ideas and beliefs.”
The campaign also emphasised these qualities and Ms Hussein’s self-prescribed label of being “a disruptor”.
Ms Maris said, “The most central part of why I believe in her as a Rector is that she is an expert communicator, she is an activist, and she has labelled herself as a disrupter. I think those three things are so central to the role of Rector because the Rector is one of three student-elected people on a court of 26 people, so there [are] only three that are really speaking for the students and bringing the issues to the table that are important for students.
“The fact that she has had a history of speaking about things that are uncomfortable, of making her point clear, calm, collected … I think that makes her so well-suited to become the next Rector because she has that power.”
On a similar note, Ms Maris added, “St Andrews has a status quo and we don’t often challenge it, and recently student activism has become more pronounced in our community. I think we need someone who has experience in activism to keep that momentum going because we don’t want to lose sight of that, and go back to nodding when the University says ‘go’ and just doing what they tell us to do.”
Addressing the minorities which Ms Hussein herself represents as a black, Muslim woman, Ms Maris said, “I think the University is kind of a microcosm of the world that we live in, in which the very privileged make these decisions without having any real insight into what it’s like to be a minority, to be oppressed, and to not have a voice.”
She continued, “I think people should vote for Leyla not necessarily because she’s black and a woman and Muslim, but recognising that the diversity that she brings diversifies the [University] Court. It brings new perspectives [and] a new understanding of what it’s like to be a woman, of what it’s like to be black, and a minority, and a person of colour, and a Muslim at this University and in higher education. That’s the only way we can see real change for people in those groups.”
Students can vote in the Rector elections on Thursday 15 October and Friday 16 October.