It’s been a turbulent week for Warwick University. A peaceful sit-in organised by ‘Warwick for Free Education’ turned ugly when West Midlands police beat, CS sprayed and threatened to taser students – the first time, incidentally, that CS spray has ever been used on students. The footage was shocking: I was sitting in the library as Facebook erupted with jaw-dropping videos that gave me goosebumps. Within hours, the Guardian and BBC were covering it and students, (in true fashion) mobilised quickly. A protest was planned for the next day. On a cold Thursday afternoon, over 1000 students gathered outside the place of the incident to express solidarity with those who were attacked, injured and arrested (observed by the Beeb, Channel 4…and police – this time soothingly dressed in eggshell blue). Speeches were read and slogans were chanted, culminating with a group of about 100 students occupying part of a university building.
Ever since my first week at university, I’ve never understood the relationship between theory and practice. International Relations is peppered with competing and contradictory paradigms and ways of looking at the world. But they seem to force reality onto ideas rather than attach ideas onto events in reality. The difference between what we say in the classroom to what we see play out in real time confounds me. In organised, hourly chunks, we discuss and debate abstract ideas and how they relate to what others have said. We write structured essays and are merited accordingly. At the end of three years we leave and those ideas are neatly left in the musty classroom behind us for the next generation.
In my Critical Security Studies module, we watched a film about the effects of the Iraq War on a working class British veteran. It was short but touched upon a range of issues from PTSD to notions of masculinity. My tutor asked us to write the director a letter. As an Iraqi who has suffered directly from the war it really affected me. Whilst reading the letter out in class, I felt my voice shake. Out of nowhere my eyes teared up and by the end of the letter, tears cascaded onto the table. If I was in an American series, they’d have referred to it as a meltdown. I certainly felt all the stress and upset that my family had been through emanate outwards. All those fears I hadn’t told my friends about, the discrepancies between TV and reality, between ISIS and quotidian Baghdadi life, they all culminated in the reading of that letter.
One of my most striking physical attributes is my curly hair. Growing up my mum would plait it and brush it out every morning before school so it wasn’t until I was 11 that my best friend, Gen, drew my attention to my natural curls. Gen’s mixed race – her grandmother’s from Jamaica (though I detest the idea of anyone fractioning their heritage like that) and she has beautiful curly hair. She pointed out that when wet, my hair would spring up into ringlets; she showed me what products to use to tame the ‘frizz’ and how to style it. I went from being unaware to fiercely proud of my hair, in fact, we were so proud we formed the CGC – the ‘Curly Girl Crew’ – where we invited members with similarly curly hair to join us. Duties involved changing our MSN names to ‘reppin’ CGC’ before promptly forgetting it ever existed, to date we’ve only ever had five members – how cool was I?
It was over the course of my teenage years that I grew to love my hair, in fact I was on the number 52 bus one time and I overheard an Iraqi mother say to her daughter in Arabic ‘that girl’s got beautiful hair’, it made me glow and over time I’ve come to value it as one of my defining features. I straighten my hair a couple of times a year and people always remark how different I look and how long it is when straight. Though I do love the change (and convenience) of straightening my hair, I also feel like I’ve lost something that makes me stand out – like I’ve somehow ‘normalised’ myself. I appreciate this is a pedantic point that some could even class as neurotic but hair is political: how you style your hair, as a woman or man of colour, influences how you are perceived both within your community and without. The colour, texture and style of hair for all non-white communities is inherently contrasted with European ideals where straight, white hair is considered beautiful.