For more than ten years, I refused to speak my native language. Growing up as a queer British-Bengali girl in a mostly white, middle-class environment, I suppressed crucial parts of my identity – so much so that I can no longer speak Bengali. By the time I was 14 I felt like I had no connection to the culture I’d grown up in, even though it affected the way that people treated me every day. I had given in to self-hate and isolation. Then I found a community.
On Twitter and Instagram I met women of colour who’d had experiences like mine. The internet gave me a space to feel that my feelings were valid. I had imagined that no one else felt as isolated as I did, and it was only after I began talking to others on social media that I started learning to love my identity. When I began to question my sexuality, I had no one in my life to help me navigate being queer and Muslim. But I did have that online.
‘Safe spaces’ have been one of the biggest topics of 2016. We’ve heard the argument that safe spaces stifle free speech, usually made by people who’ll never lack an opportunity to be heard. But when it feels like the world is saying you have no value, safe spaces become vital.
When I walk into a classroom at my school, I know it will be dominated by people who benefit from all sorts of privileges. When I walk into most places, in fact, it feels like I am silenced. I want to be outspoken, but I struggle to ask the necessary questions that make people most uncomfortable. The idea of a safe space has empowered me to create change: to ask those crucial questions.
Safe spaces give platforms to the marginalised and prioritise their experiences. They’re often stereotyped as closed-minded university societies, but the safe spaces that matter to me – a young person forging my identity – are online communities where oppressed people can share their daily struggles without being shouted down by those who don’t understand.
Now those spaces are moving offline. Last year I went to the Women of the World feminist festival at the Southbank Centre. It was amazing to hear ideas about race and gender, the kind of discussions I’d found so important online, being aired face-to-face. I’ve found a network of women of colour through free events, lectures and debates. We support, teach and listen to each other.
London is an amazing city. There are always free events on, which are incredibly valuable for skint and marginalised teens like me. I feel lucky to live here because I know that no matter what I’m going through, there are countless other people going through the same things.
But there’s still work to be done. This year I tried to set up an LGBTQ+ society, and I was shocked by the resistance and homophobia that I faced. I was told that the words ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ and ‘transgender’ were exclusionary. That attitude illustrates exactly why we need safe spaces.
Even in one of the world’s most open cities, we need to fight to make our voices heard. The internet is one thing, but to change people’s lives for the better we need to take that fight to the real world.
By Afrin Ahmed, 17, from Westminster