I’VE been attending protests and picket lines for as long as I can remember and they have never been so well fed. The University strike over the radical axing of staff pensions has now entered its third week and yet the picket lines are stronger than ever. Outside the main gates of the University of Glasgow, on University Avenue, the fire engines, and buses, lorry drivers, taxis, Glasgow city council land services – all of them honking away on their horns in support to great cheers from the picket lines. And it’s cold. Temperatures barely above zero, with blizzards last week and freezing rain this. We’ve all learned that there is no such thing as too many layers on the picket line.

Newcastle University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Day, came out saying he “absolutely supported staff’s decision to strike” and that he didn’t know “what else they could do to express their concerns about the current situation”. Our own Principal, Prof Sir Anton Muscatelli joined the picket line last week to say that the University’s position was very close indeed to that of the strikers, and to wish us well. He also invited the students to meet with him, and off they marched, with their baked goods and signs saying “love your staff”.

These students are missing out on classes as a result of the inability of Universities UK to handle this dispute. And these same students have sustained and provisioned us on a daily basis by swelling our numbers, and our waistlines with their magnificent home baking. Seriously, these young folk should consider writing a recipe book or entering Bake Off. Chocolate brownies, victoria sponge cake, chewy ginger biscuits, fruit loaves, muffins, all varieties of teas and coffees and every kind of milk and dietary requirement. The thoughtfulness behind this food preparation takes some beating.

This kind of provisioning, as the late Prof Ailsa MacKay’s work pointed out, is highly gendered. It’s work which is largely unrecognised and yet which holds families, communities and institutional social bonds together. It’s a kind of attentive neighbourliness, a gift-economy of care, comforting those who are putting themselves out on behalf of others.

It’s no surprise that the majority of those bringing warm soup and flapjacks to our picket lines are women – though not exclusively by any means. It’s also clear from any Higher Education statistics you read about precarious contracts and employment that it’s the women who are by far the most likely to be affected. And we know from Mhairi Black’s interventions in Westminster that it is women who have been most detrimentally affected by changes in state pension provisions. And of course, when the pensions are axed, who will be most badly affected – yes, you guessed it – the women on part time or precarious contracts. Pay-docks for industrial action are also affecting the part-timers disproportionately harder than those of us on full time contracts. And – yes, again, you guessed it – the majority of these are women.

But at the same time as there is a veritable baking feast being brought to the freezing cold public picket lines of the universities across Scotland, there is another strike going on behind closed doors.

Women detainees in the notorious Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre are on Hunger Strike. They have taken this drastic action, of taking the violence of the detention system into their own bodies, as a last, desperate resort. To be so desperate that you will risk your health and life and deprive your body of food, you have to be in a situation where the alternative is worse.

The detention estate of the UK is a disgrace. There are many, many, more humane and more cost efficient alternatives to detention but the share-holder profits in the private security firms running these come before the human rights considerations for the Home Office. The website ‘Detained Voices’ collects the testimony of the women on hunger strike. On 2nd March one woman wrote the following:

“I was summoned to the Legal Home Office department to meet the Immigration Enforcement Manager: […] I was reassured that because I was on hunger strike it didn’t mean that;

l My case would be favoured, it will take its due course

l It will not lead to me being granted permission to stay in the UK

l That it didn’t mean that my removal directions would be deferred

l That it will not lead to the progress of my immigration or Asylum case being altered or delayed

l That it will not lead to me being released.”

The Yarl’s Wood women on hunger strike are demanding an end to the barbaric practice of indefinite detention because they feel: “voiceless, forgotten, and ignored.” It’s a desperate way of trying to get the Home Secretary’s attention. And it’s not as if for years campaigners have not been working hard to demonstrate the injustice of indefinite detention and detention systems.

Both these strikes – the universities strike for pensions and the women’s hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood have a number of things in common. 1) women are disproportionately badly affected by the systems and institutions against which they are presently protesting 2) The excess provisioning of food or the radical denial of food both highlight women’s labour in particular, and gendered dimensions of the things which quite simply sustain and nourish our bodies and our social lives. 3) they are showing how fundamental food and women are to struggles for social, refugee, economic and gender justice.

The philosopher Judith Butler says that revolution happens when people make their homes on the street, when they refuse to just go home. On the university picket lines the making of food by students for striking staff, and sharing on the streets, as if at home, is an example of this world turned upside down. It literally embodies this moment of poise and potential for a tipping of the scales of justice. On the picket lines together, fuelled by our students, we are making a new kind of university home together.

In Yarl’s Wood there is no access to the public square, or the visibility of protest that I enjoy as a right. In Yarl’s Wood, the women are shining a light on the dark practices of the state they wish to call home. Their hunger is now visible, their courage is known, their agency comes through the refusal to accept food. They are showing us what the UK as a home is like for them and how it is systematically starved of nutrients of compassion. In the bodies of these women “Hungry Foreigners Made in Britain” as one of them signs herself, is a glimpse of a higher set of values for making a country into a good home:

“A manager told me last week that I should concentrate on my case and be more selfish as I might feel better if I stop taking on people’s problems. He might have a point but I can’t help but have empathy and maybe that’s why I could never do a job like his. I empathise with people regardless of the colour of their skin, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and political beliefs. To me people are people, and we all want the same things on a human level. We want to feel safe, we want to love and be loved, and we want to feel accepted.”

So on International Women’s Day 2018, as a university striker in solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood Hunger Strikers I will be joining the 24 hour Freedom Fast, resisting all those lovely home baked biscuits. Thank you, women of Yarl’s Wood, for holding us to the highest standards of humanity.