Muslim students at a German university have seized control of a “silent room” designed as a space for all pupils, transforming it into a makeshift mosque and erecting a wall to segregate genders. There are also feet washing facilities and signs instructing women to wear the veil and to not wear perfume.
After a series of complaints the room at the Technical University of Dortmund was closed, but 400 angry students quickly signed a petition demanding it be reopened and alleging anti-Muslim prejudice.
Last Wednesday, the university replied in an open letter addressed to Muslim student leaders, explaining that the institution is strictly secular and gender segregation is illegal in German public institutions.
“Female visitors of the room were repeatedly intercepted at the entrance by Muslim male users and told that they only had access to a small, more confined space, compared to the larger part reserved for men”, the letter reads.
The room started out as an open space with two sofas, a few bookshelves, and a calming forest mural to help stressed students unwind. “The space of silence is to be kept ideologically and religiously neutral. Religious symbols, characters or the like must not be placed,” the rules for the room stipulate.
Eva Prost, Head of Corporate Communications and a spokesman for the university, told Uni Spiegel that there have been demands from Muslim students to turn the room in to an exclusively Islamic space ever since it was set up in 2012, but the university leadership has repeatedly resisted.
“There was never a prayer room for either Muslim or Christian students. Our ‘room of silence’ was rather an offer to those who seek peace in often stressful university life”, she said.
However, four years on and the room was “arbitrarily altered” without warning. “An improvised wall has been erected to separate men and women. The Quran was displayed, there were ways for foot washing, and prayer rugs were stored in here”, Ms. Prost explained.
More shockingly, “on flyers women were instructed to wear headscarves, even if we do not know whether that was actually enforced”, she said.
Asserting: “All this we can not accept. Students have complained to us, and quite rightly so. Elimination of gender discrimination we must protect, because as a State institution, we are committed to the Basic Law”.
She said that such controversies are “not normally debated so hotly” in Germany. “If the same thing happened two months ago, before the New Year’s events at the Cologne Cathedral Square, the public attention would certainly be lower”, she said.