I always wondered what it meant to be a “President” and to be a leader.
Elections taught me to be led by your members as it is their principles which you will carry through all that you do. So instead of forcing my traits on them and telling them what leader I am, I spent time speaking with them and asking what traits they wanted from me and promised them that’d I’d try my best become that.
I painted “Leadership” on a page, grabbed some pens and went to the cafe, the main corridor, common rooms: anywhere I could find students and asked them to write their thoughts down. It was then that I decided if I were to win, I would seek to adopt and practice those characteristics through my work.
I had a plan to share my leadership findings with students if elected but soon after I was, there was controversy – claims that the elections were rigged and subsequently questions over my legitimacy as President. Along with that, the union and university were being accused of Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism. I wasn’t comfortable with that because it’s not true- City is a great place with so many people from different backgrounds.
Controversy took over and it didn’t seem the right time to talk about what I learnt about leadership. It was a rocky start and though I wasn’t speaking about the journey as I wished, I was quickly forced to learn those traits that students had identified as valuable – being patient, confident and active. This role doesn’t allow time for you to get hung-up so I quickly got over it, and immersed myself in my role and did my best for students at City.
I thought all was ok till a month ago. An engaged student told me: “I wanted to run for president but after seeing what happened to you with all the hate at the beginning of the year, I didn’t. I think after the beginning of the year people felt they could treat you like that. I’m not as strong as you” In that moment I realised my mistake. Though I am confident and comfortable with how I dealt with it, I never shared my actions and thoughts with students. So this message is for her and for other students to let them know I didn’t just let it lie and that I am happy with my time at City.
Last night I wrote an open letter to Anthony Marzouk. He was one source of antagonism fuelled by press articles and human rights campaigners seeking an investigation into the election. The election had been independently verified by the Returning Officer at NUS, as all union elections. They are independent of the organisation and any complaints received were looked into and found to be groundless.
After seeing Anthony Marzouk’s posts, students asked questions and I knew if I as President felt powerless in this situation, what did it mean for students? I wanted two things, accountability and pastoral support.
I sought help from our union. They told me to remain quiet and things would quieten down, and that to speak out would lengthen the bad publicity and damage to the reputation of the Union. It was against my instinct and as it continued, I knew doing nothing was wrong. I didn’t want to fight all the allegations, but simply put something out to students. It was a mix of fear to defend themselves but also not wanting to fight fire with fire. The line was thin. One day I was asked to take down my own posts – a move that was intended to protect me, but frustrated me too.
I sought help from my university. They told me to block the individual so I could not see him. I understood but blocking him was not enough, I knew he would be writing my name and I needed to know what was said. And if it would make it difficult for me to do my job. They told me that because it was online, it was uncontrollable and “free speech”. I claimed if it was happening on their online forums, there ought to be some responsibility. They said the posts weren’t damaging to the university at the time. But they were damaging the union, the university and me. I had just been elected President but I was powerless.
I was offered a mentor by the University for my “leadership issues” and told that the situation would prepare me for similar issues I would face in my career. I disagree. I wasn’t the one with the issues. And I don’t believe that anyone in any public role should be subject to such behaviour nor expect it – nor expected to accept such behaviours. Yes I was President, yes it was more public but should I ever expect such harassment? No.
I phoned Peter Tatchell, who contributed to an article calling for an investigation and re-election. I said the article and its allegations were now being used by others to harass me. I hoped he would use his leadership and influence to help. But I was wrong. Instead he said “I’m sorry if some of Hassan’s supporters are still giving you a hard time. They are doing so because of what they believe happened in the election – not because of anything I said or did not say.”
It was at this point I began to question activism, the ones we believe stand against injustice. I decided, if I couldn’t find that person, I needed to be that person. Time passed, press stopped, most of social media stopped but “Anthony Marzouk” didn’t.
I was advised to take it to the police. They took photocopies and explained it could be classed under the offence of malicious communications or harassment. After the investigation they could not take it further as in their eyes it was not malicious. Given “Anthony Marzouk” had been solely created to bully out of my job and attack the organisation, I believe there is a very clear malicious intent.They said they could only take action if Facebook identified him. I asked for help contacting Facebook to do so and emphasised I’d need to identify them to put a defamation claim forward. They didn’t help and told me to go to the Citizens Advice Bureau. To this day I believe they were wrong.
A public policy exchange conference on prosecuting stalking and harassment taught me of the challenges professionals working on these issues face. After telling them my story and asked if I was overreacting and whether or not I should pursue or let it be the “background noise” people were telling me it was. They said it wasn’t ok and I was right to pursue the issue.
Eventually a couple of opportunities came up to get support but I kept missing them, being disorganised and distracted with work. I felt every time I caught the ball it’d quickly slip away again. And it felt too late, Anthony Marzouk’s account was soon removed. Though I was glad bit every trace was gone, every clue I had went too. I let go. I had to fulfil my commitments to my students and focus my energy in that direction.
Recently I was interviewed for a feature and surprisingly asked about the controversy. I was honest and said in retrospect, had I spent all my energy denying every accusation, I would have nothing left to achieve for students at City. It meant I had to work extra hard to make sure they knew they could trust me, but that was ok. “Trust” was something students needed in a leader so it meant I had to work for it.
Since all this, I believe many positive changes have happened meaning that should such a situation occur, it would be dealt with much more effectively.
For one, the Union is a much stronger organisation, structurally and principally. We’ve acknowledged our mistakes and aren’t afraid to speak out if it’s the right thing to do. But we’re also conscious of what we did right – keeping quiet is ok at times. This was the first time something like this occurred on this scale, so we learned.
And the same goes for the University. I have always believed that their intentions were always to help me and I’m thankful for that– but they didn’t know how and didn’t have processes in place to do so. They now have a robust clear Bullying and Harassment policy and harassment advisers to support students through the process. I just missed this coming in place for what happened to me, but all students can access it now.
There is a stronger consciousness amongst staff and students about these issues. The University, CULSU’s Fem Soc, and CULSU advertise these services more through social media and on campus.
I’m not saying things are perfect but it’s a big step in the right direction if we can tell students where to go. At the beginning of my term, I would have outright criticised CULSU and the University over this, but having worked in these areas, I’ve learnt that things can and will change for the better so long as there is willingness and openness. Both these qualities exist at City and CULSU, and I’m proud to have spent my time here. I encourage all students to use these processes and speak out if they do not work.
When I think of this year, I don’t think of the controversy. But I felt it important to address this having heard that student say she was afraid to be a President. It does not define my time as President nor what we have achieved at CULSU for students at City. Along with these difficult times, I’ve had incredible support from the people around me! And the bad things are absolute miniscule compared to the good I’ve encountered. It is this that has driven me. And even through the difficult times, I recall students I didn’t know approaching me saying that they had faith in me.
Lastly and most importantly, I want students to know that they should never be afraid. And certainly never afraid to run for President! I’m not a strong person, but a person led by my students, learning the traits they told me to learn and being the leader they told me to be. Yes, there were a minority of loud voices seeking to create negativity and division; but ultimately the strength and backing of students overpowered that. One year on, City is a brilliant place with a great community and I’m sure it will continue to be for many years to come.
Peace and love always