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First Muslim black woman elected to top UK student role

Malia Bouattia's win at the National Union of Students conference on Wednesday comes after a tense election campaign
Malia Bouattia previously served as NUS former black students' officer

The UK's National Union of Students (NUS) elected its first black female Muslim president on Wednesday at its annual conference in Brighton.

Malia Bouattia, the NUS's former black students' officer, was elected by 372 votes to 328, beating candidates including the current NUS president Megan Dunn.

"This isn't a win just for me, but for the thousands of students who paved the way for this victory to happen," Bouattia told Middle East Eye.

"Students across the UK are facing dire hardship and it is important now more than ever before that their national union stands with them."

Bouattia has been a leading advocate against the UK government's counter-terrorism strategy Prevent which legally obliges public servants - including those at universities - to report anyone suspected of being an extremist.

She co-founded the “Students not Suspects” campaign, calling on student unions and UK higher education institutions to not comply with Prevent.

During the four-month campaign, Bouattia told MEE she has experienced racist and Islamophobic attacks, including online abuse calling her "communist scum" and a "vile disgusting jihadist". She said she has also received death and rape threats.  

She has also been accused of being antisemitic. In an open letter released last week, more than 50 heads of UK Jewish student societies and more than 200 other signatories questioned whether Bouattia would be supportive of their societies on campus. 

The letter came in response to an article Bouattia co-authored in 2011 which referred to the University of Birmingham as being "something of a Zionist outpost in British higher education".

"Why do you see a large Jewish society as a problem?" the open letter asked. 

In a response shared on social media, Bouattia said, "I do not now, nor did I five years ago when I contributed to the article cited in your letter, see a large Jewish Society on campus as a problem. 

"I celebrate the ability of people and students of all backgrounds to get together and express their backgrounds and faith openly and positively, and will continue to do so," she wrote.

Bouattia came into the national spotlight last year after voting against an NUS National Executive Council (NEC) motion "to condemn IS and support Kurdish forces". The motion failed to pass.

A NUS spokesperson at the time said: "Some committee members felt that the wording of the motion being presented would unfairly demonise all Muslims rather than solely the group of people it set out to rightfully condemn".

Reacting to Bouattia's election, former National Executive Councillor at NUS and International Officer for Labour Youth Abdi Aziz Suleiman said the win “gives hope and courage to a generation of young Muslim women who are being intimidated out of public spaces because of implicit and explicit Islamophobia that make their lives impossible".

During the three-day conference, the NUS also reiterated its opposition and call for students to refuse to comply with Prevent by working with local trade unions like the UCU representing academics on campus. 

Incumbents Shelly Asquith, Sorana Vieru, Shakira Martin and Richard Brooks were also re-elected as NUS Vice Presidents alongside the current LGBT Officer Robbie Young. 

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