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Light is an essential component of many religions. Historically, in Islam, the sun was used to help determine the Qiblah — the direction that points towards the Kaaba in Mecca — where Muslims around the world face during prayer. The Hindu holiday Diwali — a five-day festival that took place earlier this month — celebrates the triumph of light over darkness. The phrase “let there be light” can be found in the very beginning of the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Torah.
However, at Harvard, only students of certain religious faiths are able to gather in religious spaces that let light in. Harvard students of Muslim and Hindu faiths must practice their religion in the basement of the freshman dormitory Canaday, with no windows, no sunlight, and too little space to pray without waiting in line.
It is extremely saddening that Muslim and Hindu students are relegated to such disrespectfully small and inappropriately gloomy spaces. Prayer spaces are, by virtue, meant to embody the love and care that believers hold for their faiths. Low-ceilinged, dark, isolated rooms in the basement of Canaday personify nothing but neglect. And while it’s easy to point a finger at the University, we must point one inward as well: This, regrettably, is the first time our Editorial Board has opined on the inadequacy of a basement prayer space despite this being a problem for the past 25 years.
The Muslim and Hindu prayer spaces exist in stark contrast to the spaces on campus that Christan and Jewish students enjoy. Christian students may gather in Memorial Church, a beautiful, lofty structure with arched windows and velvet carpet. Jewish students have Rosovsky Hall, a building complete with multiple prayer rooms, a library and lounge, and a full-service dining hall. The building, which houses Harvard Hillel, could only be actualized through high-profile donations. The creation of supportive, student-centered campus spaces, however, should never be contingent upon the generosity of outside donors. This task must be a University priority.
Proper prayer spaces for Muslims and Hindus at Harvard are not frivolous additions to campus — they are essential to nurturing diverse communities such as ours, and sending the message that all faiths are respected and celebrated at Harvard.
Though Harvard has no official religious affiliation today, it is worth mentioning that the University was founded by Puritans whose Christian influences have pervaded Harvard for almost four centuries. Though no longer a theological institution, a brief glance around campus will reveal that many of Harvard’s most beautiful and famous buildings — freshman dine under stained glass that evokes scripture and depicts ministers mid-sermon in Annenberg — contain echos of our Christian origins, even if their modern functions are now secular.
Unfortunately, dilapidated prayer spaces are not the only way Harvard fails to meet the basic needs of Muslim and Hindu students. For Muslim students in particular, it is difficult to grab a Halal-friendly meal from the dining halls. Unlike the offerings for Jewish students at Hillel, Harvard has no Halal-specific dining hall, only designated areas across the Houses: one in Annenberg, one in Cabot, and one in Adams. However, since the recent fruit-fly infestation temporarily closed Adams’s dining hall, upperclassmen living in the River houses who keep Halal now have even fewer options. They can request a Halal entree from the other dining halls, but the meal takes at least ten minutes to prepare, and stretches longer when dining halls are overcrowded.
This dining ordeal is inconvenient for both the Harvard University Dining Services employee and student, who must both go out of their way to feed and be fed. Although Harvard sends out dietary restriction surveys to students each year, when Muslim students arrive on campus and attempt to eat at the dining halls, Harvard behaves as though their requests were unexpected; as a consequence, Muslim students are put in the awkward position of having to ask for daily accommodation.
Eating is not an inconvenience. Harvard must do better in ensuring that Muslim students do not feel like their food preferences are disruptive to the operations of HUDS, and provide ready-made Halal meals at each dining hall.
At the College, Muslim and Hindu students’ prayer is sequestered below ground and their dietary needs are barely met: In some respects, this constitutes bodily hostility. It signals that Harvard was not designed, and has not made plans, with these students in mind. A University spokesperson declined to comment on the recent Crimson article detailing these inequities, which is telling in and of itself.
The University must rectify this blatant disregard of Muslim and Hindu students, and do so quickly. Muslim and Hindu students deserve beautiful, above-ground prayer spaces they can call their own, where sunlight can stream through the windows.
Going forward, Harvard must also be proactive in supporting students practicing their faiths. During Ramadan, for example, ensuring access to hot, Halal food for Muslim students for Suhoor (before sunrise) and Iftar (after sunset) is essential to their well-being. In addition to providing the basic facilities that Christian and Jewish students are offered, informed measures like this would go a long way to making sure that students from other faiths feel recognized by the University, and can navigate life at Harvard with the relative ease enjoyed by their peers.
In the face of neglect from the University, Muslim and Hindu students have nevertheless cultivated vibrant communities in the subterranean spaces they have been given. Harvard must give these religious communities the respect they deserve. This means housing and feeding them properly. It means finally giving their prayer spaces a place in the sun on campus.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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