A number of Muslim students have come forward with stories of being stopped from praying on campus by security staff, after which the University’s part-time BME officer conducted a survey to investigate how students felt about prayer spaces provided by the University.
According to the survey completed by 70 Muslim students, 86 per cent of students felt they had experienced wanting to pray on campus but feeling like there was no space to do so, 96 per cent wanted to see more prayer facilities on campus and 17 per cent said they had felt harassed for praying on campus.
Of these twelve students that felt harassed, some spoke to The Mancunion about their experiences.
Aishah, a second-year medic, claimed to have been stopped from praying at the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons (AGLC) during exam time and told The Mancunion: “I’d stay quite late and wouldn’t feel safe going out to find another place to pray as other buildings would be closed. The male guards would wait till I was done praying before telling me I couldn’t pray in the stairwell between floor 1 and -1.
“On one occasion the female guard shouted at me while I was mid-prayer so that I would stop. I wasn’t blocking anyone[‘s way] and there was plenty of room, but still she insisted it was a fire hazard.”
One witness to these events, also a Muslim student at the University, commented that the staff stopping students from praying cited safety reasons for it and said “as if in the event of a fire, you’ll just stand there and not move.
“If I can sit down and have a chat with my friends in front of a fire exit, I’ll pray there too.”
After hearing stories like this, the University’s BME officer conducted the online survey with the intention of proposing a policy at the Students’ Union senate for prayer spaces in every building on campus.
She added that this would include a segment on appropriate behaviour around students who are praying, commenting “certainly not [by] interrupting them, so disrespectful!”
Previously, a petition to have an official prayer space at the Main Library was signed by over 600 students in 2015. One student, Doyinsola, explained her reason for signing it: “Although I am Christian I know prayer is an integral part of religion, especially for Muslims. Travelling far to observe evening prayers can be quite risky and frankly unsafe. I can’t believe they don’t have one in the first place.”
Other students have reported feeling racially profiled by staff, who asked them to refrain from praying without any reason.
One student who experienced this and chose to remain anonymous told The Mancunion that she had been approached by a guard at the AGLC while she was taking a break from revision and talking to her friend. “She just came over to us and reminded us, irrelevantly past midnight, not to pray anywhere in the Learning Commons.
“Clearly it’s because she saw that we were both wearing the hijab because she’s singled out and done this to two of my friends who wear headscarves because they were visibly Muslim.”
When asked about these incidents, Deej Malik-Johnson, campaigns officer, stated that “it is deeply troubling to hear reports of students being denied access to pray[ing] on campus where prayer rooms are not available.
“Following on from a year where we have seen an increased number of attacks on visible Muslim women on and around campus, and with Jewish students reporting that they feel unsafe, the university should work towards ensuring [that] campus is a welcoming and safe environment for all of its students.
“I believe, for the university to live up to the standards of tolerance, education and justice that it purports to hold dear, it should commit to creating dedicated spaces for prayer, meditation or contemplation in learning areas that are accessible to all staff and students.”
According to a recently released statement, a University spokesperson responded to the allegations of staff misconduct and demand for prayer spaces, saying that “The University takes very seriously the report of harassment, particularly as we are not aware of any incidents, and would urge students to report this if it happens. Library staff are instructed to ask students to move only if they are obstructing a walkway.
“When designing the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons and improving the Main Library, student feedback has been to address the serious pressure on study space and access to enough books on the shelves. However, Library staff are happy to talk over the priorities for space usage in the regular meetings with Students’ Union Exec members.”
The University of Manchester’s Islamic Society is the biggest registered student society on campus and said to be the biggest in the UK. Their website states that there are two main prayer halls on campus, with ablution facilities: the McDougalls prayer hall on Burlington street; and the North Campus prayer room (also known as UMIST Mosque).
The website also mentions other places to pray during working hours only, including a room in the Ellen Wilkinson building, the Students’ Union safe space, the Stopford building and a quiet room at the St Peter’s Chaplaincy.