Tucked between City Rd and Urbanest is a three-storey glass building with wind- ing staircases, state-of-the-art facilities, a newly refurbished kitchen and a library filled with bookshelf upon bookshelf of stimulation: “Same-Sex Attraction: A Parent’s Guide,” reads one. “Religion and Feminism,” reads another.
I could almost mistake this for the Law Library if it weren’t for the sounds of ping-pong balls against hardwood coming from the bottom floor – oft-punctuated by shouts of victory and/or despair – or the glass windows opening out onto a view of the Wentworth Building, or the sign out- side which proclaims “University Catholic Chap- el and Student Centre” in all-caps.
It’s a stark contrast from the dim hallway in the Old Teachers’ College where I find the men’s and women’s Muslim prayer rooms.
These two rooms are abuzz as students enter and leave – it’s a communal, if slightly crowded area. It’s hard to believe that a space which is at once so spirited and peaceful continues to bear the brunt of frequent attacks borne from Islamophobia, with recent acts of vandalism occurring just weeks ago.
Both spaces – the Catholic Student Centre and the Muslim prayer rooms – are run by clubs and societies; the former by the Sydney University Catholic Society, and the latter by the Sydney University Muslim Students Association (SUMSA). Both societies are tight-knit, united by common faith – yet the disparity in their resources shows there still exists a hierarchy of religious facilities, even within a university so often proclaimed as “progressive” and “radical”.
A Muslim student, who does not wish to be identified, tells me they are actively afraid of discrimination on campus, and are afraid of another case of vandalism of their prayer rooms.
SUMSA Media Representative Shahad Nomani agrees. “Five times our place of prayer and solace has been ransacked [since the end of the 2015 academic year],” he wrote in a Facebook post regarding the recent vandalism. “Five times these vandals wished to hurt the Muslims at the University of Sydney.”
These attacks seem to confirm a culture of religious tension that was identified by Muslim Wom*n’s Collective Office Bearer Zahra Makki in an article for the SRC’s Counter Course Handbook, lamenting the “particularly vicious incidents of Islamophobia… at Sydney University”.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Society’s presence on campus has gone from strength to strength, with new facilities and growing membership.
Damian Wilks, a fourth-year BPESS student and member of the society, attributes this to the continued growth of membership. “In 2013… mission weeks had four people on a stall, and now they have up to a dozen. All the events that are held are much more extensive,” he says. “The new facility has a chapel, a library upstairs, and showers, a kitchen, and a barbecue downstairs.”
These differences in testimonials beg the question: why is it that the Catholic Society receives a brand-new building unit, opened last year, and equipped with all the facilities of an Eastern Suburbs mansion, whilst other religions on campus are not only sequestered into much smaller corners, but made to feel consistently insecure?
The answer is that they had a lot of external help. The Catholic Student Centre was actually the result of a deal struck between the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney (which has a long history of working with the society) and (the not particularly student-budget-friendly) student accommodation provider Urbanest.
The Archdiocese owned the land and allowed Urbanest to construct their new residential facility there. It replaced a previous one located near Broadway Shopping Centre. The chaplaincy centre came as part of the deal. In contrast, the Muslim prayer rooms are provided by the University of Sydney itself, and receive no external funding from local Muslim organisations.
There is a Multifaith Chaplaincy Centre in the Merewether Building. However, students who spoke about their past experiences there for this piece said the facility – designed to accommodate all backgrounds – was largely inaccessible.
It’s important to note here that the individuals within the faiths themselves are not to blame.
On my trail, I’ve encountered genuinely helpful students who have directed me to services and information regarding different religious facilities. However, the distinct levels of privilege afforded to each faith are undeniable.
Religion on campus is likely to remain a contentious topic. There has never been a time where safe and autonomous spaces have been more significant, and especially in a climate rife with complex opinions on the role of religion in a modern society, every student deserves the right to express their beliefs without the imminent risk of having their sacred spaces vandalised.
For the spiritually inclined, the Catholic Students Centre is located in Jane Foss Russell Plaza, opposite the Scitech Library, and the Muslim Prayer Rooms are located in Rooms 309 and 310 of the Old Teachers’ College. The Multifaith Chaplaincy Centre is in Room M240 of the Merewether Building.