Lady Margaret Hall JCR has been forced to issue an apology after numerous students dressed in “racist” and “offensive” costumes at an Arabian Nights themed bop on Saturday evening.
A number of LMH students attended the undergraduate bop as belly dancers, some wearing towels on their heads, others with mock turbans and mock headscarves. At least one student wore a hook on his hand, a costume interpreted by multiple students to be that of extremist cleric Abu Hamza.
Responding to substantial criticism, JCR President Aadit Shankar told The Oxford Student: “I would like to apologise on behalf of certain members of the JCR who misinterpreted the theme, and to all those who were offended by some of the costumes.”
Shankar continued: “The JCR Executive is always prepared to remove anyone from a bop who is dressed in a manner that may be deemed offensive. [We are] proud that LMH is home to people of all race, gender, sexuality and faith.”
The theme, decided five days prior to the event, was intended to refer to One Thousand and One Nights, a classic collection of Arabic folk tales. Numerous LMH students, however, chose to dress in modern day Arabic clothing, prompting accusations of “cultural appropriation” and racial insensitivity.
Writing on the LMH Facebook page, English finalist and former Cuntry Living editor Charlotte Sykes criticised the costumes: “Wearing a towel on your head if you are white is pretty racist. Equally, wearing a belly dancing outfit if you are white perpetuates patronising stereotypes of people who live in countries our country quite frequently bombs the fuck out of.”
Sykes later told The OxStu: “Stereotypes of a minority group work to dehumanise said group. This can have extremely tangible consequences, which we are witnessing in the rise of the Islamophobic Far Right across Europe.”
She continued: “A bop that leads to people dressing as belly dancers or with a towel on their head is perpetuating lazy, one-dimensional stereotypes about Arab culture at a time when we really need to work against this.”
In its description of the theme, an LMH college newsletter stated: “For our first theme this term, we will be transporting you to the world of magic flying carpets, genies, jangly bangles, and outrageously paisley trousers.”
Third-year English finalist Alvin Yu also voiced disapproval of students’ costumes: “I don’t think it was a particularly ‘racist’ or ‘offensive’ theme because it’s a group of folk tales […] the problem was that people just didn’t really think about it properly.”
According to student publication Versa, LMH’s social secretary was reduced to tears after being publically confronted by angry students at the bop.
Several LMH students defended the theme. Theo Heren wrote on Facebook: “The day we ban belly dancing costumes is the day we really lose it”, with undergraduate Clara Davis accusing the critics of “conflating race, colour, and culture”.
Davis went on to write: “I have no reason to feel guilty about my costume last night […] I am white. I am also Arabic. Does this mean I have been racially insensitive to myself and my family? My ‘belly dancing’ costume I wore last night was made by my Lebanese family.”
Sultan Kara also defended the costumes, commenting: “Arab here. Is it not equally racist to assume that all people in the Middle East dress the same […] I’m not quite sure what you expected to happen when most people’s concepts of Arabs are terrorists or Aladdin. I don’t personally mind what people wear. It’s just a manifestation of their own ignorance.”
Previous college bop themes have provoked similar controversy, with a St Hugh’s bop in April 2013 attracting criticism after two first-year students ‘blacked-up’, a decision described by then-JCR President Thomas Pope as displaying a “severe lack of judgement”.