UEA’s Islamic Society have said they will protest the closure of their prayer space after being told their facilities will close on Sunday 21 May.
It is understood that the daily Islamic Prayer Facility near Lecture Theatre 2 will be closed to make a connection to the Library, with construction scheduled to start on Monday 22 May.
UEA Islamic Society (Isoc) President Shoaib Jamshaidi called the university’s decision “insulting to Muslim students.” He said the decision was made “with no consultation on the eve of Ramadan and the exam period.”
Lipa Lucky, a second-year Medicine student and the Head Sister of UEA Isoc, said students were not informed of the closure by the university and only found out from word of mouth.
She said: “It began with the cleaners, we would have casual conversations with them and they would say that the lecture theatres are being closed down, and we weren’t told about this even though that’s where our prayer facilities are. After that we went to the security lodge and they weren’t entirely sure whether it was being closed down.”
Miss Lucky said: “It was kept very vague. We went to the SU and they didn’t know anything about it either.”
A university spokesperson said: “The University is in ongoing discussions with the student Islamic Society, the Muslim Chaplain and others to ensure we can provide appropriate faith provision on campus.
They added: “We are committed to ensuring that there is no break in provision for students wishing to use our facilities, including during Ramadan, during the exam period and during development works over the summer.”
Students were told their facilities could be relocated to the Multi-Faith Centre.
The university said they “have proposed a temporary solution of using UEA’s Multi Faith Centre and the Blackdale prayer room will continue to be available during evenings.”
However, Miss Lucky told Concrete that representatives from the university “wouldn’t listen” when told that the space didn’t accommodate Muslim students’ needs.
She said that Isoc presented the university with more than ten points on the unsuitability of the Multi Faith Centre, including the importance of the idea of segregation, congregational prayers, prayer five times a day.
Miss Lucky added: “We don’t want to distract from other students practicing there. It’s for the consideration of other students and ourselves as well, we need a clean surface, we can’t have idols in the room as we’re praying, males and females need to be segregated. We can’t dominate over a space that is for everyone. Therefore we need a private space and they don’t understand that, and that is why we are taking the action we are.”
Haroon Razmandeh, a first year Medicine student and President for UEA Islamic society for 2017/8, said: “They have the potential to make sure that we still have these facilities there, they still haven’t started the work so this is a good stage to change things. They’re starting on Monday and throughout the whole summer they’re going to be having the whole construction.”
Ramadan is expected to start on Saturday 27 May and will last until Saturday 24 June.
In 2012 the Muslim Prayer Facility on Chancellors Drive was closed, sparking months of protest by students. In January 2013 the university published a ‘Faith Policy and Recommendations’ report which stated: “Further space for use by Muslim staff and students will also need to be identified within existing buildings or incorporated into future building plans.”
This document also included a joint-statement from the UEA Chaplains who agreed: “dedicated facilities are needed to meet the needs of Muslim students.” Proposals to close the current facilities in 2014 were abandoned when it was concluded that another space could not adequately provide for Muslim students.
Mr Jamshaidi added: “The lack of longer term solutions on offer after working positively for two years is shocking. It is crucial that the University authorities act quickly to re-establish trust with this important and growing community of students on campus”
SU Welfare, Community & Diversity Officer Jo Swo said: “We would remind the University of its duties under the Equality Act 2010” and under UEA’s own faith and belief policy.”
Section 29 of the Act states that “a service must not in providing the service, discriminate against a person (b) [of a protected characteristic, here is faith] by terminating the provision of the service to (b).”
Miss Swo said: “With the inability of the university to provide a sufficient and appropriate alternative space, which the Multi-Faith Centre is not, we would regard the university to be breaching the Equality Act 2010 by taking away the only prayer spaces suitable for Muslim students on campus.”
She added that the SU felt a “space crisis on campus” is “directly affecting the 600+ Muslim students on campus whose only space for Friday prayer (Blackdale) is being taken away because of the space crisis for exams.
A UEA spokesperson said: “The university is very grateful for the input of all stakeholders into the ongoing consultation about this matter. A working group will meet on Friday to discuss arrangements further.”
The SU’s petition can be viewed here: https://www.change.org/p/university-of-east-anglia-stop-uea-from-abolishing-muslim-prayer-spaces