International Muslim students, predominantly from Saudi Arabia, have asked universities in Melbourne to change class times so they can attend congregational prayers. They also want a female-only area for Muslim students to eat and relax.
But at least one institution has rejected their demands, arguing that the university is secular and it does not want to set a precedent for requests granted in the name of religious beliefs.
La Trobe University International chief officer John Molony said several students had approached the Bundoora institution about rearranging class times to fit in with daily prayers.
Mr Molony said the university was attempting to “meet the needs” of an increasing number of Muslim international students, including doubling the size of the prayer room on campus.
La Trobe University International College director Martin Van Run said that although it was involved in discussions with the Muslim students who had made the requests, the university was not planning to change any timetables.
“That would seriously inconvenience other people at the college and it is not institutionally viable,” he told The Australian. “We are a secular institution … and we need to have a structured timetable.”
Mr Van Run said that Saudi students were fully aware that the university was secular before coming to study there. “They know well in advance the class times,” he said.
A spokesman for RMIT University would neither confirm nor deny reports that Muslim students had requested timetable changes.
One university source told The Australian that the requests by Muslim international students for timetable changes included a petition.
“Some of the students would prefer that lecture times were organised so it would be easy for them to attend prayers,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be a good precedent to set.”
Islamic leaders yesterday backed the push by Muslim students to have their lectures arranged to accommodate prayer sessions, but said such a move would be essential only for congregational Friday prayers.
Female Muslim leader Aziza Abdel-Halim said yesterday it was a religious duty for those who followed Islam to preach with their fellow believers on Fridays.
But the former senior member of John Howard’s Muslim reference board said there was nothing in Islam that indicated men and women be segregated when it came to educational activities.
“There’s nothing in Islam that says there should be complete segregation, especially in educational institutions,” said Sister Abdel-Halim.
She said afternoon prayers for Muslims – Zhohor, at 1.10pm, and Asr, at 4.50pm – could be performed until 10 minutes before the following daily prayer, so it was more appropriate to alter prayer times than lecture schedules.
“It’s reasonable to ask for the lectures to be shifted around on Friday,” Sister Abdel-Halim said. “But if it’s going to cause havoc with the timetable, I don’t think it’s really feasible to ask forevery single prayer to be catered for.”
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