Article credit: Aria Bracci
From reproductive justice to immigration law, Nargis Aslami's activism spans from present organizing to future practice. She discusses how the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, as well as other resources at UMass, have built a foundation for her work. Nargis was the recipient of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts Achievement Award, the Henry and Jean Hall Humanities and Fine Arts Scholarship Fund Award, and William F. Field Alumni Scholar Award and will be serving as a Legal Assistant Intern for Student Legal Services in Fall 2017.
What led you to declare a major in Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at UMass?
I took "Intro to Women’s Studies" freshman year, second semester, as a Gen. Ed. It was so cool. All the content was really interesting, and it was what I was passionate about—I just didn’t know it coming into college. I was initially an English major.
We talked about sexism, and that’s so basic, but it still was shocking to me that there was an academic discipline that studied this. I had no idea that this existed in the first place, but then I came in, and I took this class, and we talked about all of these incredibly real things that no one talks about, that nobody talked to us about in high school. It was really great and super important. It made me feel something (whereas reading James Joyce doesn’t make me feel anything, you know?). That doesn’t have an impact on my life, but Women’s Studies? This is real stuff that we’re talking about, and we’re trying to change the world. That’s why I switched into WGSS.
How did your WGSS classes motivate you to pursue further work outside of the classroom?
For me, reading isn’t enough. It’s really good to build your knowledge and be educated on these topics—that happens in the classroom, and that’s really important. But when we’re sitting in the classroom and learning about disproportionately high rates of homelessness and incarceration in communities of color, that’s just not enough, and WGSS majors are in this field of study because they want to be making some sort of tangible change.
Reading about Foucault is really great and important, but what is that doing? It’s frustrating sitting in a class and reading about all of these systems of oppression and recognizing that there are reasons why sexual violence exists. What are we doing to stop it? What are we doing to decrease those numbers of people that are being assaulted? I do value the academic theory and having this theoretical knowledge because it informs activism, and it informs the practical work that we’re doing, but in a time like this, when real people are being targeted, the practical work is important.
In what ways do your studies overlap with the work that you’ve done?
I think that my studies overlap primarily with my work at CLPP [Civil Liberties and Public Policy], especially because what I’m studying in the classroom is reproductive justice—it is reproductive rights—and that’s what I’m working with at CLPP. A lot of the stuff that I learn in the classroom provides me with information to take to Student Group and information to relay to the students that I’m planning these meetings for. It’s really great. It’s really helpful.
Sexual assault obviously revolves around misogyny, internalized homophobia and blatant homophobia, racism. It all relies on these systems of oppression that exist, and these forms of discrimination that are out there. It just informs the way that people choose to display their power over people. So, yes, theory is important. Foucault is important in this instance. If you’re thinking about Foucault and his theory of power and how there’s power everywhere you go—you’re never free from power—that’s true, especially in terms of sexual violence. You are always one step below somebody else in the hierarchy of power.
So, in some instances, my studies are informing what I’m doing, and in some instances, what I’m doing is a repetition of my studies.
How did you first get involved with Civil Liberties and Public Policy (CLPP), the organization that you work for at Hampshire College?
I was taking Theories of Social Justice, a WGSS class with Ann Ferguson, and she provided the students with an option to do a practicum—she had several different organizations to choose from. There was Arise for Social Justice, some others, and then there was CLPP. I had just read Killing the Black Body, so reproductive justice and rights were on my mind. This was a really great opportunity to get involved, and I had this professor who could guide me through the process of getting involved, so I joined the Student Group, which is what I now direct.
When I first joined, it was a weekly meeting in the Spring semester. I was on the Abortion Speakout committee, and I helped plan the Abortion Speakout for the conference. That was the first.
And now you just finished planning and running the annual CLPP conference! What was the most rewarding part of this challenging process?
Honestly, the most rewarding thing was seeing all of these students organize their specific events. It was remarkable to see how much power students have, how much they can do, and how little we give them credit for. It was remarkable to see the students on the Support Team be there every minute of the conference; there was someone always there. They were well-equipped. They were ready to go. They had their phones. They had their cute little fanny packs and their resource bags. It was incredible.
I haven’t been to many conferences, but I personally would never have thought of creating a Support Team for a conference in the way that we have it at CLPP—the way that we always have two to four people on shift, ready to go and provide these people with support. They go to a training during the weekend to be able to provide the support. And our entertainment committee—they put on this incredible event.
In addition to being on the same stage as Wendy Davis and Shanelle Matthews—it’s just incredible being on the same stage as those people—the most rewarding part of it was seeing that I spent this entire year leading this Student Group, and they killed it. It was so incredible to see that students can do so much if we give them the space to do it. I’m just so proud.
Any given week, you find yourself commuting between two towns, two campuses, and various roles as student, intern, hotline operator, and co-coordinator. How do you stay motivated?
People have been asking me this question a lot, and I keep asking myself the same thing. There’s a difference between staying motivated and just “keeping on keeping on.” This work is real life. There’s no stopping. There’s no, “If I take a step back…” I can’t take a step back. Yes, the work will keep happening, but we need as many people as we can get involved to stay involved and to keep doing this work.
We need people doing this work, and I want to be doing this work, and I keep doing it. And it’s hard. It’s exhausting. But people need to be doing it, and so I’m doing it.
You plan to go to law school after graduation. How do you plan to apply a law degree to your social justice work?
I’m really excited about this. Still working it out. I’m viewing the law as a tool. That’s really downplaying this whole process, because law school is expensive and I’m spending three years of my life going after this degree. So it’s not just a tool, but it’s one more thing that I can add to this collection of tools and skills that I have, in order to continue making change. Being able to understand the Constitution, being able to understand if Trump’s immigration ban is unconstitutional—I need to go to law school to understand this, and I want to do that.
I want to be able to say, “This is not okay because of this,” and not just because I morally oppose this ban, but because it is inherently, legally not acceptable. Sometimes that’s the only way you can stop something. You have to go to court. You have to have a judge, a Supreme Court justice, say, in a court opinion, this is illegal, and you can’t move forward with this.
There’s that whole conflict of needing to compromise and “work within the system”—a system that I don’t agree with. But I hope that once I get this law degree and I understand the law, I’ll be able to take down these policies and laws that, morally, I know are wrong but I want to take a step further. I want to actually take it to court and be able to say, “This is wrong, not just because it hurts me and a lot of people, but because it’s against the Constitution or against this precedent that you already had, that you already put in a Supreme Court opinion.”
Not only do I want to take these awful things to court, but I also just want to be a person that can provide legal services to undocumented immigrants or a survivor of domestic violence or a person that was assaulted—anything. I just want to work with the people that don’t have these resources available to them. And, hopefully, I will be in a financial situation at some point where I can do this pro bono. But who knows?
This article was originally published on the UMass College of Humanities and Fine Arts website in spring 2017, and is republished here by permission. See https://www.umass.edu/hfa/profile/nargis-aslami-18.