On Saturday 4th June 2022, the Oxford Union President, Michael-Akolade Ayodeji, chaired an emergency meeting to discuss concerns about the Union’s first ever fashion show. Although the President decided to go ahead with the event as planned, various groups said that the Union’s “toxic culture” made it an inappropriate place to host the proceedings.
The Solidarity Fashion Show was organised by a number of people, including Union Secretary and SU President Anvee Bhutani, who promoted it as “a night to empower all those who are affected by abuse, harm, and other personal trauma”. The event relied heavily on “featured entertainment (sic.) and models who are themselves survivors”. Some of the models and organisers had flown in from Canada, with one reiterating that they put “a lot of love and energy into making this event possible”.
Several days ago, however, female members of junior committee at the Oxford Union reportedly expressed unhappiness about how they had been treated when asked to work at the fashion show. In response, an emergency meeting was called on Saturday, a mere four hours before the event was due to start, to discuss “the decision to go ahead with the organisation of the fashion show”.
Ayodeji, who is already facing calls for resignation amid complaints of bullying, tried to end the meeting on multiple occasions, but was called out by one of the attendees for “going round in circles of Union bureaucracy”. Following this, Ayodeji gave way and allowed other concerned individuals to state their opinions.
Lucy Heywood, a representative for WomCam (the Oxford SU Women’s Campaign) explained why the Campaign had decided not to endorse the fashion show. Although not opposed to the event itself, she said: “The Union has deep, deep issues and until we resolve them, I don’t see how, in good faith, we can hold an event when people do not feel empowered in this place. A better venue could have been chosen.” She added that “survivors do not feel comfortable in this institution”.
“People do not feel empowered in this place…”Lucy Heywood, Wom*Cam representative
The Oxford Union has faced long-running criticism for its culture of misogyny and discrimination, with Simon Kuper’s recent best-seller, Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, detailing the institution’s elitist “hackery”, which has seen few changes since the 1980s.
When Bhutani asked why junior committee members hadn’t voiced their concerns about the fashion show until earlier in the week, the Union Communities Officer Liberty Osborne said, “it was implied that our opinions didn’t matter”. She added that the attitudes she faced being asked to work at the event were “extremely disrespectful”, saying “[the Union] is not an encouraging or welcoming environment for female junior members of committee to come forward”.
Another member of the junior committee added that she had been assaulted “on these very grounds”, with others agreeing that experiences of this nature made the meeting particularly distressing.
Osbourne criticised the manner in which it “pitted survivor against survivor”, while Ayodeji himself conceded the discussion had been “triggering”.
Adi Kesaia Toganivalu, Ex-Treasurer of the Oxford Union and founder of the anti-sexual violence group Not Here Not Anymore, also raised concerns about the procedural failings which led to the complaints being discussed when they were. In a statement to The Oxford Blue, she said: “The fact of the matter is, this should have been raised to the Standing Committee, by those who were organising the event. The Standing Committee is the governing body of the Union; they should have been alerted that multiple groups had said to not go ahead. Second to that, it is absurd to imply – as was done at the meeting – that those who have concerns do not care about survivors. You can be upset and hurt by the fashion show, be on Oxford Union Committee, and also be someone who has been personally affected by the issues raised by the event.”
Models in the fashion show told The Oxford Blue that the event’s organisation had been “shambolic”. When asked how she felt about the fact that a discussion of this nature occurred on the afternoon of the show, one model stated: “I’d say it’s insulting. It’s also discriminatory. Because if it was a normal fashion show, with non-disabled models, non-LGBTQ+ models, without models who are people of colour, would this discussion be happening? Yes, but it wouldn’t be nearly as serious.”
“I’d say it’s insulting. It’s also discriminatory.”Model in the Solidarity Fashion Show
The model also said she believed the emergency meeting was reflective of deeper problems within the current Union committee. “I think other political issues are going on within Michael’s team, and I think this has just forced it into the precipice. It’s not just the fashion show we’re referring to, but a lot of general issues which come from unfortunate leadership.” She concluded that it was a shame this had impacted on Solidarity in particular, noting “this is the event for progress, and they’ve screwed themselves up.”
A Union member who later attended the fashion show told The Oxford Blue: “The whole way this was handled is ridiculous and unprofessional. The Union has to do better.”
Michael-Akolade Ayodeji and Anvee Bhutani have been approached for comment. This article will be updated upon receiving responses.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article and would like to seek support, please reach out to any of the following:
It Happens Here: https://www.ithappenshere.co.uk/need-support
Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre: https://www.osarcc.org.uk/
University of Oxford Sexual Assault Support Service: https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/supportservice