‘If you ask Manchester, it will answer’: Feminist freshers’ fair fights ‘laddish’ culture

A group of Manchester students are holding an alternative freshers’ fair to counter the ‘laddish’ and exclusionary attitude that often surrounds the first week of university.

The Manchester Feminist Freshers’ Fair started today as an all-day event running from 11:30am until midnight at Twenty Twenty Two, Dale Street.

Along with a smorgasbord of stalls, the event will feature work from Manchester based feminist artists, various speakers, workshops, DJs and film screenings.

Created by four past and present art students at the Manchester Metropolitan University, the event aims to provide a substitute space for women, and men, wishing to avoid the ruckus of Oxford Road this week.

Celia Wickham, 23, Saffa Khan, 21, Rebecca Halliwell-Sutton, 24, and Georgia Grace Gibson, 20, drew on their own experiences of feeling unwelcome in ‘Welcome Week’.

Ms Halliwell-Sutton said: “I am surprised there are not more things like this, because I completely checked out of Freshers’ Week when I was in first year.

“When I first went to uni, I dropped out nine months later. But I think part of the reason I dropped out is that I did not make those close knit friends at the start because I could not drink at the time.

“I was not feeling very well so I did not want to have to go out every night. And there was no other place where I felt comfortable to bond with people.”

Much has been made in recent years of the often sexist culture that surrounds freshers’ week.

And in a large playground of excess like Manchester, many of the tens of thousands of students who will be arriving here for the first time may naturally feel daunted by this experience.

Ms Khan added that she believes first year students in particular are often likely to forget why they came to university, missing out on the chance to involve themselves in much of what the city and the university has to offer.

She added: “Obviously there are so many young people that do not really know a lot about feminism, so we thought it would be a great idea to get the idea of feminism and politics, all in one place. 

“You are there to have fun, but you are also there to learn, which I know a lot of young people sort of drift away from when it comes to first year at uni.”

The fair is unaffiliated with MMU or any university, leaving it open to a larger crowd of people. In this way, the event will not only appeal to new students, but also be a platform for Northern feminism.

One thing that has been an issue for the four women is not just the need for events such as this, but the lack of feminist events in the North in general.

Ms Gibson hopes the fair will prove to people coming that to be heavily involved in feminism ‘you do not have to be a really edgy St Martin’s student’.

“It strikes me that a lot of the groups and collectives are all based in London, and feminism is kind of seen as this radical thing that people cannot take into everyday life,” she said.

“I think in the North feminism is a bit ignored. So it is really important to show people in Manchester that there are all of these organisations that you can get involved with.”

Ms Wickham described wanting the fair to be more than just the parade of stalls, as seen inside many universities.

Speaking on the opportunity, Ms Wickham believes the fair will give ‘likeminded’ students the chance to meet one another.

She said: “I have always envisioned it as seeing people coming together, being able to chat and to be a social thing as well.

“I think for a while in my first year, I was almost waiting for things to happen, and wait for university to be what I wanted it to be.

“You come to realise that you need to make it what you want it to be. And by taking control of it and taking control of how it goes, I think that can be an empowering thing.”

Aiming to be the inclusive space that freshers’ week is often not, inclusivity is absolutely at the forefront of the fair, with ‘feminism’ being a bi-word for openness.

Ms Halliwell-Sutton attested to this. She said: “We do not want it to just be average students. We want everyone to get involved.

“So we want women of colour. We want trans people. We want everyone who feels marginalised to actually come together to talk and meet in real life.”

Giving advice to people starting university this week, all four girls – including Ms Gibson who is a fresher herself – stressed the importance of stepping outside of your comfort zone and getting involved.

And what the fair attempts to demonstrate is that Manchester is the perfect location to immerse oneself in the various events and scenes that lie outside of the student bubble.

Ms Khan’s advice rings true to this, with the current art student saying: “Be true to yourself and do not have so many expectations, do not change yourself, and be confident and be brave.

“You have already done one step as you are in a different city, and Manchester has so much to offer. So if you ask Manchester, it will answer back to you!”

For more information on the freshers’ fair and full lineup, please visit here.

Image courtesy of Christopher Dombres, with thanks.

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