FGM campaigner takes on the plight of students facing a 'terrible cancel culture'

First black woman in prestigious role as rector of St Andrews wants everyone to have a voice

As the founder of the organisation Safe Space for Black Women, Leyla Hussein has definite ideas about how to make a difference as she takes on a leadership role at one of Scotland's oldest universities.

The post of rector of the University of St Andrews is unusual in that it is a position elected by the student body. While not involved in day-to-day management, the rector embodies the university and the welfare of its students.

Over the years, some high-profile figures have occupied the position, from the actor John Cleese to the author Rudyard Kipling and former UK prime minister Arthur Balfour, who wrote the Balfour Declaration.

The first black woman to hold the post in the university's 600 years campaigned for the job as the biting winds came off the North Sea earlier in the year. Amid the privations of lockdowns and the coronavirus pandemic, she this month began undertaking her first public functions in the role.


The Somali-born psychotherapist and activist wants students to firstly know that she can represent them across the board, whether that is addressing issues of diversity with the university authorities or the vulnerabilities created by Covid-19 restrictions.

"With my therapy hat on, I would say I am a great believer in having very uncomfortable conversations," Dr Hussein told The National.

"In order to do that, we need to create those safe spaces. We live in such a terrible cancel culture right now [an opinion she shares with one of her rectorial predecessors John Cleese] that people can't even discuss what they are thinking or what they are feeling without being judged or attacked. I want everybody to be heard by creating that space."

The overall tone of 2020 has been unrelentingly grim, but for Dr Hussein there is an encouraging takeaway from her appointment.

"We all know that St Andrews is very white," she said. "It is a very privileged space and, with everything going on in the world – Covid killing many black and ethnic minority groups, the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement – there are things that can be disheartening.

"But to have a majority of white students vote for a black woman – when many of those conversations don't necessarily affect them – really sends out a big message."

Dr Hussein remembers going to women's marches with her half-Somali-half-Yemeni grandmother in Mogadishu as a young child.

After her family quit her homeland, she was taken first to Italy and then to the UK, where she for the most part grew up.

Finding the right mix at St Andrews

She was a youth worker when she became a campaigner for the three million women threatened by female genital mutilation, and achieved a change in the law to ensure that the crime was pursued by the British police.

The first encounter with St Andrews undergraduates was a moment of great coming together for Dr Hussein.

"I really, really appreciate that, and I was very clear from day one where I said:  'Listen, I don't want to be a token black person, I want to be engaged.

"They were a representation of my world because my world is not just black women or black people," she said. "You know, it's mixed. So to log into a Zoom call with black men, black women, you know, Asian, white, it was just young people from different parts of the world."

Now her advocacy skills – she was named campaigner of the year by a UK magazine in 2010 – are at the service of St Andrews' students.

"If I can achieve anything in this role, it's really to be an advocate for the students," she said. "I want to be a bridge between the authorities and the students.

"We live in a world where we have been separated physically but we have technology to be more interactive and while we can't fix every problem straight away, people need to be heard.

"I need to hear what the students want and I can go and advocate that on their behalf."

Parts of Scotland entered the highest tiers of its pandemic lockdown regime this week. Dr Hussein is determined to ensure that the mental health of students is not the real victim of the coronavirus crisis.

"We need to expand support around mental health now that the lockdowns could be extended further and it's winter, which is going to have a real impact," she said. "We need to make sure they are physically, emotionally and socially safe."