Yesterday morning, Egyptian-American journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy tweeted the following series of statements from an airplane waiting to leave JFK airport for London Heathrow:
SOAS is the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, and there have been a series of controversies in England recently over organizations and institutions “no-platforming” speakers whose views they find repugnant or dangerous — refusing to share a stage with them or extend invitations to them to speak. Eltahawy’s allegations were quickly disseminated online as the country’s newest no-platforming scandal.
The truth is more complicated.
Representatives of the SOAS Students’ Union quickly denied that they had taken any vote or other formal action to bar Eltahawy or to set conditions on any potential appearance. In a formal statement several hours later, the Union denied that any no-platforming proposal had been so much as “discussed at any level within our Executive Body.”
According to them, moreover, Eltahawy had never been invited to speak on campus. A student had suggested bringing her, and the Union, “happy to host this speaker,” had entered into “discussions with the student about the format of the event (whether it should be in a panel format or just the speaker alone).” The statement left the impression that the status of Eltahawy’s proposed speech had not yet been resolved.
Some time later, SOAS-SU updated the statement with additional comments from Aida Balafkan and Jonelle Twum, two students who serve as the Union’s “Part-Time Womens’ Officers.”
Balafkan and Twum said that they had been approached earlier this month about the possibility of Eltahawy speaking on campus on the evening of December 9 — apparently the only time she would be available on her current trip. The two discussed the possibility with one of the Union’s officers, and decided to try to build a panel around Eltahawy’s visit.
Their statement continues:
We tried our best to look for other panellists but again the time and energy that we had was very limited. We also find out there was no suitable room available on that specific date.
Already working on two events for the end of November, one on a panel discussion about intergenerational feminism on 30th, having essay deadlines in December and the limited time we had, we decided to withdraw and not host any event in December. The decision was never based around whether we should have Mona Eltahawy as a guest but rather more on a combination of practical reasons mentioned earlier. We simply physically and emotionally could not organise an event in the short time we had.
The students said that while there had been “serious critical discussions around some of [Eltahawy’s] works and views” in the course of the attempt to put the event together, the decision not to host the appearance was made because of practical and logistical considerations.
The statement ends by indicating that the event is now going forward under the direction of the Union’s “Co-President Activities & Events, Zain Dada.”
A few things leap out here.
First, Eltahawy’s initial claims appear to have been inaccurate in several respects — unsurprisingly, given the complexity of the situation and her lack of direct contact with the Union. There was apparently no “vote to not let [her] speak,” and no discussion of the issue between top SU leaders.
Eltahawy’s claim that she was “prevented” from speaking also seems questionable. According to the various statements coming from the Union, there was a proposal to bring her to campus, discussions about logistics, and a decision not to host the event. There was, they say, never a formal invitation — the event just didn’t come together.
This is a common occurrence with any speaker in any context — personally, I’d estimate that for every time I am brought to a campus to speak, there are three or four serious expressions of interest from students or groups that never come to fruition. That’s the nature of public speaking generally, and of working with student organizations in particular. That’s just how it works.
Were Eltahawy’s views an element of the decision to not move forward with the event? It appears that they may have been. The students who initiated the process say that it provoked “serious critical discussions around some of her works and views,” and they don’t close the door on the possibility that those discussions played a complicating role in the planning of the talk.
But again, that’s neither unusual or sinister. A group contemplating a decision to devote time, money, and resources to host a speaker has every right to consider that speaker’s views in deciding whether to extend an invitation, and every right to structure the event how they choose. If the speaker objects to the conditions set by the inviting group, they can negotiate or decline. Again, that’s just how it works.
I don’t know exactly why this event fell apart. It seems plausible that opposition to Eltahawy’s views played a role. But even if so, that wouldn’t be evidence of the SOAS Student Union’s hostility to freedom of speech.
It’d just be evidence of them exercising their own freedom of association.