UCT prof apologises for 'appallingly ill-considered' e-mail to Muslim student

18 May 2018 - 07:31 By Nora Shelly
University of Cape Town. File photo
University of Cape Town. File photo
Image: UCT Student @UCTStudent via Twitter

After being told students would be able to take a break during evening exams to pray during Ramadaan‚ University of Cape Town fourth-year student Nuhaa Soeker wondered if she and other Muslim students would also be able to break fast during the exam.

She e-mailed her professor‚ asking to be allowed to take a break during the exam to eat something substantive‚ more than the small snacks students often eat during exams.

The response she received was frustrating and surprising‚ she said on Thursday. Professor John Higgins‚ of the English literature department‚ replied: "By breaking the fast‚ do you mean a five-course meal with dessert‚ or a small snack whose eating would disturb no one around you?”

Soeker shared the message on Twitter‚ and told TimesLIVE: “A lot of people were just as surprised as I was‚ and it also angered a lot of people. Which then made me kind of realise this wasn't about me getting a really mean e-mail from a lecturer‚ it was about something bigger‚ because it meant something more to the student body‚ not just Muslim students.”

Higgins has apologised to her for the e-mail‚ which UCT described as “inappropriate and disrespectful”.

“I see now that my response was appallingly ill-considered and hurtful‚ and has caused offence to the student in question‚ as well as to the broader UCT community and beyond‚” Higgins wrote in his apology‚ released by UCT.

“I am deeply ashamed at the lapse in judgment present in my communication‚ and the hurt it has caused.”

Several other lecturers in the English Department sent another e-mail to students on Thursday‚ saying the e-mail "feeds into and reinforces an under-examined structure of racism‚ Islamophobia and blatant disrespect towards students".

Soeker said while she appreciated the apology‚ the e-mail pointed to a larger issue at UCT. This comes as Muslim students have to contend with their exams while celebrating Eid.

UCT announced on Wednesday that students would be able to break fast at their desks during an exam or take a short break. For those with exams on Eid‚ they are able to defer until early in second semester‚ or start the morning exam an hour late to be able to make it to early-morning prayers.

UCT said in a statement on Wednesday that as a secular institution it had “deep respect for all religions‚ as enshrined in our values”.

“We will continue to discuss ways in which we can improve to ensure that we give effect to these values and to ensure that this is visible in our rules and practices and is experienced on campus every day.”

Soeker said she hoped her exchange with Higgins brings to light other issues at UCT.

“Many people with influence in the university are clearly blind to the concerns of Muslim students and minorities‚” she said.

“It’s just important for us not to remain complacent any more‚ because these are real issues.”