Mel Plant, BA Arabic and Turkish
Mona Eltahawy, a renowned but controversial Egyptian feminist figure, claimed on the 18th November that she had been denied the chance to speak at SOAS. Eltahawy’s tweet alleging that the ‘SOAS Student Union voted to not let me speak at [the] invitation of some students,’ was quickly picked up as a story by London Student in their online platform.
London Student’s article claimed that Eltahawy at been ‘no-platformed’ by the SOAS Students’ Union, publishing these accusations without waiting for confirmation from Students’ Union representatives. The article quickly caused a storm on social media, with the apparent ‘no-platforming’ of Eltahawy being seen as symptomatic of a failed ‘safe space’ culture which seeks to eliminate ‘offensive’ views altogether.
Right-wing online journal Breitbart reacted similarly to the un-verified news, claiming that the Students’ Union had banned a ‘liberal Muslim’ on the same day ‘proudly hosting’ Asim Qureshi of CAGE, viewed by Breitbart as a ‘Salafist’ group. Qureshi was indeed hosted at SOAS on the 18th as part of an event entitled ‘Islamophobia and British Values,’ alongside Abdassamad Clarke, an Irish convert to Islam who is a scholar of Islam and an Imam in Norwich.
Another controversial ‘liberal Muslim’ figure Maajid Nawaz also criticised the invitation of Qureshi of the ‘pro-Jihadist’ CAGE to SOAS, his ‘alma mater,’ contrasting this was the supposed ban of Eltahawy, who, in Nawaz’s words, ‘campaigns for Arab sexual revolution.’
The media storm that followed Eltahawy’s tweets and London Student’s report was countered later in the day by an official statement by the SOAS Students’ Union, which stated that Eltahawy’s invitation had ‘not been discussed at any level within our Executive Body’ and that the allegation was ‘untrue.’ The Students’ Union expressed disappointment with London Student for publishing Eltahawy’s allegations without clarification.
In reality, the Students’ Union had no part in any decision regarding Eltahawy speaking at SOAS. The Students’ Union Womens’ Officers Jonelle Twum and Aida Balafkan (who was later attacked by Eltahawy on Twitter) later released a statement clarifying the issues around organising a talk by Eltahawy.
Clarifying Eltahawy’s comments that a student at SOAS had initially invited her to speak, asking her to extend her visit to the UK in order to do so, Twum and Balafkan specified that on the 4th November, a student requested their help as Womens’ Officers in organising the event. However, the student also informed the Officers that Eltahawy would only be available on the 9th December after 5pm, and that she would need to be informed as soon as possible in order to postpone her flight out of the country.
Most members of the Students’ Union Executive Body at SOAS are part-time Officers working alongside their degree. Twum and Balafkan expressed that they could ‘only host events if we have the time and the energy.’ Despite this, the Officers attempted to look for other speakers available at the same time in order to create a panel discussion ‘to create dialogue.’
Mona Eltahawy is controversial in circles discussing feminism relating to Islam and the Middle East. In her publications and various interviews she has criticised a supposedly inherent ‘misogyny’ of the Muslim and Arab world, linking this in with her work opposing female genital mutilation. Eltahawy has also gained attention for her vocal opposition of the niqab (she supports the ban on face-veiling in France).
Twum and Balafkan were unable to find speakers to host in a panel discussion alongside Eltahawy, especially due to their already heavy workload organising two events at the end of November and their essay deadlines approaching. The Officers commented that ‘the decision was never based around whether we should have Mona Eltahawy as a guest but rather more a combination of practical reasons,’ noting that the inability to organise the talk in time was not due to ‘serious critical discussions around some of her work and views.’
The Womens’ Officer put the controversy down to miscommunication between the student proposing the event and Mona Eltahawy as to why the event could not be organised. This miscommunication to Eltahawy led her to tweet that the Students’ Union Executive Body had ‘voted’ to ban her from speaking.
However, after these clarifying statements had been released by the Students’ Union, Eltahawy continued to tweet to her 225,000 followers, criticising in particular Balafkan, who had attempted to communicate the misunderstanding with Eltahawy via Twitter.
Eltahawy questioned why the Students’ Union couldn’t go ahead with her talk, saying that the Students’ Union had ‘invited’ her to speak, yet ‘insisted’ upon a panel. With students questioning her ‘ego’ for insisting on speaking alone and not as part of a panel, the series of exchanges devolved into insults, with Eltahawy failing to take into consideration Twum and Balafkan’s ‘emotional and physical capacity[ies],’ saying that she too is ‘exhausted’ from constant travel.
When a male follower and supporter of Eltahawy’s proceeded to mock Balafkan’s tweet to this effect, Balafkan proceeded to ask Eltahawy, as a ‘feminist,’ for her ‘solidarity,’ Eltahawy refused and attacked Balafkan on similar terms for failing to defend her against a Twitter user criticising her views on Islam and the Middle East.
The series of Twitter exchanges between Eltahawy, her supporters and SOAS students (and ex-students) led to one student accusing Eltahawy of ‘bullying and attacking women.’ Likewise, Co-President for Welfare and Campaigns Tom King also claimed that Eltahawy was ‘attacking a young woman online.’