On campus, Muslims have no real place of worship to call their own.
Each year, Barnard and Columbia boast about their diverse student bodies, and the resources and spaces for their students to explore and affirm their various identities. Muslims are provided with dedicated prayer rooms and halal dining on campus. They can also participate in the greater on-campus Muslim community through events organized by the Interfaith Collective and the Office of the University Chaplain, sessions with the recently appointed Dr. Amina Darwish, Muslim Life Coordinator, and by joining the Muslim Student Association.
But for Barnard students, much of this is a façade—in reality, Barnard’s campus does not have sufficient accommodations for Muslims.
Barnard’s tiny prayer room, located in the basement of Milbank, is actually a prayer and meditation room. But the piece of paper taped to the door emphasizing this via a list of rules and restrictions fails to explain why the only items of actual significance in the room are several Qur’ans and scarves.
While there are also four prayer mats, they smell as though they have not been washed for years. A fan that used to keep the closed-off room ventilated went missing in May, and it has yet to return. A pillow—that I assume was once white and clean—disappeared sometime over the summer and returned even yellower. The gaping hole in the ceiling continues to crumble all over the matted carpet.
The Milbank room can also only be accessed if you know the entrance code to unlock the door—a code you can only get if, by chance, you hear through the grapevine of the Columbia University Muslims GroupMe and WhatsApp groups and ask an upperclassmen there. Considering how obsolete GroupMe becomes after New Students Orientation Program, many students end up going most of their undergrad life oblivious to the existence of the prayer room. And given the state of the room, learning the entrance code is unnecessary when you can never pray there.
The new Milstein Center also has a space for prayer but, once again, it is shared with yoga. Disregarding the fact that finding the area is difficult because it is unmarked, the area is open to the public eye, making it extremely difficult to pray. Neither the height of the wall nor the reading room surrounding this space makes it possible for Muslimahs to pray discreetly and comfortably.
Many students, myself included, were initially overjoyed with the addition of the prayer room in Milstein because it allowed us a nicer place to pray on campus between classes and while studying outside of our respective rooms. But when these spaces are at once meant for accommodation and not accommodating in reality, the spaces are defunct of purpose, and therefore any intention behind them is void.
If students are unable to pray in a position of absolute ease in the provided spaces, then the school has not provided for them. If students do not feel welcome on campus because of the substandard resources the school has set aside for them, then the school has not provided for them.
Take another example: food.
Yes, it is wonderful that Barnard dining halls now serve only halal chicken in addition to Columbia’s halal corner in John Jay. But if students, especially first-years who are required to be on a meal plan, are starving because the serving of halal meals is shockingly inconsistent, or if there are no marked serving areas to indicate that a meal as halal, then the school has not provided for its students. If there is no procedure for ensuring zero cross-contamination between meals, or if students have to wait to eat because others have cleaned the small corner out, then the school has not provided for its students.
So, I say to Barnard: Do not tout the banner of inclusivity and diversity if it is merely a façade. I’ve already spent all of high school in a Catholic school which spoke of diversity while denying me the right to practice my own religion freely. Provide for your students. Construct prayer rooms for Muslims that actually meet students’ needs—ones we can effectively call our own. Host programs during NSOP to help students orient themselves on this campus as Muslim students. Feed your students so that their meals meet their dietary restrictions and so that their expensive, mandatory meal plans do not go to waste. Do not say you will help solve our problems and then provide a blister bandage for a battle wound.
Give us spaces in which we can breathe our identities as Muslims, both in spirit and in body. If the masses are hungry, provide them the food they need to attain absolute nourishment. Some may say they are content with what we have been given, but we do not have the luxury of a fully stocked pantry.
Alhamdulillah that bread crumbs are halal.
The author is a sophomore majoring in urban studies and religion. She could wax poetic about how much Barnard and the people she has met here have helped raise her self-esteem, and it is her goal to be that person for someone else. If you have any questions about what being a hijabi on this campus and in Catholic school is like feel free to reach out to her at email@example.com.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.