Fresh Controversy: Allegations of Unlawful Discrimination at LSESU Society Event

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The LSESU has once again been thrown into fresh turmoil over national coverage of an inclusivity issue on campus. Photographs obtained by the Mail Online appear to show enforced segregation at the LSESU’s Islamic Society (ISOC) Annual Dinner, which was also attended by outgoing General Secretary Nona Buckley-Irvine.

Predictably, the Mail Online’s coverage was sensationalist, inflammatory and divisive. In particular, the use of an image of ‘Jihadi John’ in the article is deliberately inciting and  is to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Mohammed Emwazi, the real name of ‘Jihadi John’, was an alumnus of Westminster University, an institution of no relation to the LSE. The use of this image, in addition to the cherry picking of other events, underpins a selective narrative designed to manufacture moral panic over a perceived ‘extremist’ bent at British universities. This is wholly unacceptable; the out of context usage of such rare incidents is in no way related to events at LSE, and does not acknowledge the extremely positive impact the overwhelming majority of Muslim and BME students have at the LSE and in universities across the UK.

The Mail Online are resting their allegation of gender segregation on photograph captions from attendees, photographs showing the room to be divided by a long curtain, and the event information/booking procedure, which notably included separate ticket phone numbers for males and females or ‘brothers and sisters’. The Beaver understands this information to have been taken directly from the Facebook page of the event.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHCR), a non-departmental public body with a legal mandate to promote and enforce equality and discrimination laws – notably the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998 – have previously published guidelines which explicitly state that such segregation, if not absolutely voluntary, is illegal.

In a legal framework document entitled ‘Gender Segregation at Events and Meetings: Guidance for Universities and Students’ Unions’, the EHCR clarifies instances in which gender segregation is permissible and where it is prohibited by law. In particular, segregation is permissible for events directly relating to collective religious worship, and exceptions may be made when confined to communal accommodation, shared bathroom, and so on.

It is not readily apparent that such exceptions are relevant in the case of ISOC’s Annual Dinner, which was held in Connaught Rooms on Sunday evening, given that it seems to have been a social gathering rather than a strict observation of collective worship. However, according to the EHCR, gender segregation is still permissible if the event organisers can demonstrate that the segregation of an event was wholly voluntary on the part of all attendees – proof of which the guidance acknowledges as being difficult to attain to the degree that would satisfy a court.

The EHCR notes that voluntary segregation requires that all event attendees ‘would need to be at liberty freely to choose where they wished to sit without any direction, whether explicit or merely an implicit expectation’, before continuing, ‘Segregation is not voluntary where any one individual feels that their choice is constrained due to a pressure to conform to separate seating arrangements of any form in the venue, regardless of whether they have been explicitly directed or instructed as to where they can sit’.

The presence of a large dividing curtain at the event, something which has been specifically referenced by attendees and is clear in the photographs, raises questions over whether attendees are being directed in terms of their seating, whether an implicit expectation is created, and whether attendees felt a pressure to conform to separated seating arrangements.

The guidance notes that the legality of any segregation is ultimately for the tribunals and courts to decide, and it is not The Beaver’s position to declare the illegality of any such event. Nonetheless, in the light of further national press coverage, it is important to note that the administration of the event may contradict the EHCR guidance, potentially resulting in noncompliance with UK legislation – namely the Equality Act 2010.

The LSESU General Secretary, Nona Buckley-Irvine, attended the event and, as the most senior elected officer of the SU, has a vital role not only in ensuring that we are internally democratic and accountable, but that as a Union we do not directly discriminate by flouting any broader legislation. She described the event as being, “comfortable and relaxed”, as opposed to the allegations of enforced gender segregation by the Mail Online.

Speaking to The Beaver, Nona offered a full statement which partly reiterated her comments to The Mail, ‘My comments are comments I have given as General Secretary but they are not necessarily representative of the whole team or the Union. As with every issue, unless we receive a complaint from a student regarding the event, we are happy that the event was an enjoyable, positive event and that this was voluntary in order to facilitate religious worship. If people have concerns then they should be getting directly in contact.’

However, it should be noted that whether the event was wholly voluntary or not can only be confirmed by speaking to all involved, including those who may have chosen not to attend.

At a time when gender non-binarism and intersectionality are becoming an increasingly important perspective when promoting inclusivity, the apparent dichotomy of the event will raise further questions over the representation of already marginalised groups on campus, who do not self-identify as either male or female. Nona’s concession that her comments may not reflect the opinions of the whole SU team are confirmed by current LGBT+ Officer Bryn Laxton-Coglon who has offered the following statement:

While doing our best to ignore the painfully obvious incentive of insinuating Islamophobia, can we acknowledge the literal divide between gender binaries? I am ultimately unconcerned with the “consent” politics of gender segregation, and quite frankly, as a man and non-Muslim, my opinion on the matter is of little importance. However, what pisses me off is the heteronormative and gender-binary reinforcing nature of the wall. This event is just a minor glimpse into the institutional oppression of the LGBT+ community, not just by Islam, but by religious groups generally. However, in this specific case, can you imagine how intimidating it would be for someone who does not have a binary gender identity to choose a side? I could hardly begin to describe the anxiety such choices could create. As someone who has had the pleasure of meeting many amazing LGBT+ people who have had to deal with the horrors of oppression rooted in their respective religious institutions, it saddens me that Nona “has no problem” with this.’

Meanwhile, an LSE spokesman confirmed that the school follows the EHCR guidance and was of the view that the school ‘regards gender segregation… as contrary to the law except for certain exceptions such as occasions of religious worship or where segregation is entirely voluntary’. The spokesman did not elaborate on whether he believed this to be the case in this instance, and it should be noted that the LSE is a separate legal entity to LSESU.

A statement from the ISOC, which The Beaver understands will be a stock response made to all media inquiries, reads “Our Annual Dinner was checked and approved by all necessary staff within the Students’ Union. For any further comment, please refer to the General Secretary of LSESU, Nona Buckley-Irvine.”

The description of the event as voluntary and facilitating religious worship is not necessarily disproved by the pictures obtained by the Mail Online but, likewise, for certain individuals merely to say the event is voluntary and to facilitate religious worship does not confirm that this is the case. Regardless of the normal operating procedure, the most sensible course of option would surely be for the SU to open an inquiry, given that only a transparent, open process can definitively exonerate ISOC or, alternatively, highlight what could be an issue that may affect students.

Greg Sproston

News Editor and BSc Government Student news@thebeaveronline.co.uk g.j.sproston@lse.ac.uk