Controversy surrounding ‘room of silence’ at German university

25 February 2015

In a case that has received widespread attention in the press, the Technical University of Dortmund has closed down a ‘room of silence’ for reading, relaxation, and mediation, following the growing usage of the space as a prayer room by Muslim students. For the purposes of praying, the room had been divided by movable partitions into a bigger segment for men and a smaller one for women. When this triggered complaints from female students, and when prayer rugs and copies of the Quran were found, the university proceeded to close down the room: Eva Prost, the university’s spokeswoman, asserted that “as a public institution we are bound by the Basic Law, which demands equal treatment of men and women; this is what we must defend and therefore we cannot tolerate such a gender segregation.”

Already in 2012, the students’ union had insisted that religious symbols and utensils be removed from the room. At the time, sets of flyers with instructions for women on how to dress (hijab and no perfume) had also been removed.

A petition was started by students protesting against the closure. A Muslim student complained that the loss of this space meant that there was no possibility to pray in the university buildings other than in the staircases, which need to remain unobstructed due to fire safety regulations. As a response to the petition against the room’s closure, one of its signatories has received electronic hate mail of sufficient gravity that state security services have sought to bring charges against the sender for incitement of the people (Volksverhetzung).