By Sibongile Ralana
This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 8 of VARSITY.
A task team comprising of students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) has been created to respond to the lack of religious accommodation at the university. The formation of the task team came about after exams were set on Eid-ul-Fitr this year. “Once we went through the existing policy regarding religious deferral of exams, we realised its unfair and exclusionary nature towards all minority religions in the institution,” said Nuhaa Soeker, who is a member of the task team. “After provisions were made to accommodate Muslims who wanted to break their fast during the 5pm exam session, we then decided to create a group where we can discuss ideas on what we believe should be done and how we could create a more permanent policy change in order to accommodate and protect the religious interests of the diverse range of students that attend UCT, now and in the future,” said Soeker.
Hi guys! ☺️☺️
Please consider adding your signature and sharing our petition in support of of policy proposal, which plans to amend the way in which UCT accommodates religious practice, specifically around tests and exams.
— NUHAA (@nuhaasoeker) September 11, 2018
Members of the Muslim Students Association at UCT have represented the religious needs of the Muslim students, by engaging in conversations with student governance structures such as the Student Representative Council (SRC) as well as the Examinations Office and the Deputy Registrar. Little concession was made regarding the scheduling of exams on Eid-ul-Fitr in first semester. Students who experienced a clash in religious observances and academic commitments were advised to consider deferring their exams based on religious grounds as an alternative. This practice still stands. “The current policy is guised as a neutral policy and yet has resulted in inconsistent and unequal treatment of various religious groups within the university. This process, as well as leaving the decision open to the discretion of course convenors leaves students vulnerable to bias, again furthering inequality,” said Soeker.
“A UCT lecturer’s negative and mocking response towards a student’s request for permission to break fast during the June exam period, sparked a need for this issue to be taken up on an institutional level,” said Soeker.
The task team is working to form a policy proposal for religious accommodation, which will be presented as an improvement to the current university policy regarding religious holy days. “The task team proposes a ‘Positive Recognition Model’ in hopes that it may introduce consistency, fairness and tolerance in the engagements about religious obligations between the university, its staff as well as students with regards to all minority religions, namely the most vulnerable such as students who practice African traditional religion. The model also provides guidelines for academics in structuring the academic calendar and hopes to provide clarity to staff and students who feel the need to compromise their religious freedom due to academic obligations,” said Soeker.
On Wednesday 22 August 2018, a meeting was held where the proposal was discussed with the Exams Assessment Committee (EAC). Should the EAC approve the proposal, it will be sent to Senate for consideration. In the meantime, the task team is concerned with working on lobbying support from other institutions on campus such as the Black Academic Caucus (BAC) as well as raising awareness about the matter.