By Miguel J. Johnson
HARLEM, New York-- Muslim students rally at the Willie Administration Building every Tuesday and Thursday to protest the new designated space for prayer. Students began protesting at the City College of New York on October 11th, demanding access to a prayer space that meets their needs. They need an area spacious enough to separate the genders while they pray, minimal noise pollution, and reasonable access to restrooms.
The Student Organization Club Space (SOCS), formerly in Shepard room 51, was where the administration agreed the interfaith prayer space would be until they found other options. But the proposed permanent spaces in Wingate Hall 108 and 109 and 201-203 are too compact to fit the entire campus’s religious student population. “[Room] 108 is 203 square feet and [room] 109 is 216 square feet.” said Khizar Imran, an Undergraduate Student Government Senator and Muslim student.
Imran also feels that the City College administration prioritized the interests of shareholders over the needs of its Muslim students. "Mind you, the SOCS was taken away from us because of a donation! That room was used by hundreds of students last semester, and now they gave it away for money.” The students were informed that they would be relocated a few months after The Rangel Infrastructure Workforce Initiative was announced, and the office for this initiative is planned for the former prayer room space in Shepard room 51.
Typically, Muslims strive to pray 5 times a day, and four of those prayers may occur during school hours. “The SOCS was very convenient and had a bathroom for people to do their wudu in.” said Amirah Alwagih, an impassioned psychology major at the protest. “It's a process to cleanse yourself before prayer that Muslims go through, and it's mandatory, so that's why the SOCS specifically was convenient.”
In a memo sent out in spring 2018, City College President Vincent Boudreau explained that the college can’t provide a religious space specifically for one group. “We [the university] provide ecumenical spaces for prayer, but not dedicated prayer space for any one religious group.”
But in a recent email to the college he said, “While college facilities do not substitute for established houses of worship, I know how important a space for spiritual practice is to many on campus, and establishing that space validates the legitimacy of those values, even among those who do not share them.”
On October 27th, Muslim students toured the new space in Wingate and found that noise from the Wingate gym on the floor above bleeds through. George Rhineheart, the Director of Community Standards told them, “We’ll look about sound-proofing that for you guys.”
In addition to the sound quality of the space, it may also be insufficient because it is not spacious enough to allow for the separation of men and women during prayer. “[In the new prayer room] you would hear the men praying and then the girls praying. And you can't really do that because it's disrespectful.” said Azma Rahman, a political science major.
Wendy Thornton, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, wants students to understand that universities have shifting priorities and rooms are moved around often. “Over the years, the college has accommodated the space as best as possible. But we’re [always] shifting priorities, plus having the academic program. So it's always a negotiation, trying to meet the needs of all communities,” Thornton said.
However, Celia Lloyd, the Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, acknowledges the need to ensure that every space designated for interfaith purposes is adequate. “The commitment is to move the students into adequate space,” said Lloyd. “Which is why we're having conversations. We're having a lot of conversations right now to ensure that we understand all the issues. And identify adequate space.”
Many students feel disempowered by the administrations’ decision to move the interfaith prayer space to the 2nd floor of Wingate Hall. But they persist with their demonstrations and will continue to protest outside of the Willie building. “I remember something similar happening at my community college. They always do this with the prayer spaces. I just feel bad for the students.” said senior Gilles Tanke.
Originally published in November, 2022