More silent rooms?

Student party SOG is calling for the University to add and improve upon existing silent rooms or reflection rooms. The neutral spaces are nondenominational and can be used by anyone.

‘SOG hopes to see more in the form of the availability of such facilities at all buildings, particularly in the city centre, in order to allow for an all inclusive environment for all RUG students‘, they wrote in their English-language newsletter.

The latest International Student Barometer reported that international students in Groningen felt worship facilities here were still lacking. Gernant Deekens, spokesperson for the RUG, says, ‘The RUG maintains the standpoint that we are a public university and, as such, do not have prayer rooms for students and staff. The results of the International Student Barometer and the questions from SOG are known to us, and the Board of Directors has not yet made a definitive statement on the matter.’

Difficult to find

Although the Harmonie building, UMCG and the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences have spaces that can be used for silent reflection, information about where they are located is difficult to find on the RUG site.

The space in the Harmonie building, located around the corner from the front desk, looks more like a janitorial closet. It’s also not a designated silent space or prayer room – the sign next to the door says that it’s a First Aid station. It’s also intended for use by women who are breastfeeding.

Saba Tariq, a 19-year-old studying International and European Law, is glad that space in the Harmonie building exists, ‘but since it is not big enough, not many people can benefit from the facility at the same time. I have come out of the prayer room many times only to find others waiting for me to get done.’

Saba is Muslim and is also a member of SOG’s International Student Committee. Practicing Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day at specific times. ‘But this becomes increasingly challenging as, of course, my academic schedule is not built around prayer times, and I honestly do respect this’, Saba says.

Increasingly diverse

‘To offer my prayers, I usually have to go back home multiple times during the day or, if I really can’t afford to do so because of a busy schedule, I have to miss my prayers and offer them altogether when I get back home.’

Other Dutch universities with a sizable international student population have more facilities for use by students and staff of various faiths. Wageningen has eleven ‘spaces for contemplation’, and University of Maastricht’s hospital also has a room specifically for Muslim visitors and staff to pray. Erasmus University has a room under the Aula. TU Delft has two such rooms, as does the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Given that the RUG’s student body is growing increasingly diverse, Saba feels that it has become ‘part of the University’s duty to provide specific facilities, not only for the majority but also for the minorities.’

Hester Huizinga, International Relations and Marketing Officer for the Faculty of Economics and Business, seems to share that view. ‘I think it’s important for it to be present to show that we are open for everyone.’ FEB set aside a room about the size of a normal university office last year for silent reflection. ‘I know that it is used on a daily basis, and students are very happy with it.’

However, in 2010, RUG staff member Hans Jordens stepped down from the faculty council of Math and Natural Sciences as a result of the decision to offer a prayer room in the physics and chemistry building. He felt that it went against the University council’s policy against providing prayer rooms.

Not necessary

Thomas van den Berg, spokesperson for the Christian student organisation Navigators, says that silent rooms are not something that members of his organisation really see as necessary. ‘As far as I know, it is international students in particular who are calling for silent rooms. Whether there is a demonstrable need for them or not is something that we think is worth looking into.’

Jesper-Niels Kuiper, a former RUG student and member of the Jewish Community of Groningen, also says that Jewish students would be unlikely to use such a space. ‘We go to the synagogue every Saturday, and I really don’t believe that it falls under the domain of a university to provide for the religious needs of students.’

He understands the challenge for Muslim students to find a place to pray during the day, though. ‘They should be able to do that, and I think it would make sense for something to be created in the city centre, just not by the university itself.’

Although Saba hopes that existing spaces will be improved, she also says that they are important for students and staff, regardless of belief. ‘It should also be a meditation place for students who need peace of mind and can sit in silence for a while to calm their nerves down.’