Nuhaa Soeker e-mailed Professor John Higgins, of the university’s English literature department, asking if students would be allowed to break their fast just before 6pm during a 5-7pm exam.
In response, Higgins said: “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? The exam office, which runs the exams (not me!) makes no mention of this, and you would have to approach them for clarification. But please tell me what you see as fast-breaking (sic).”
Soeker posted Higgins’s response on social media, eliciting widespread outrage.
Higgins later expressed his “unreserved apology for the offence” caused by the e-mail.
“The student was concerned about breaking fast during the 5pm-7pm university examination, and I replied with entirely unacceptable levity.
“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.
“I am deeply ashamed at the lapse in judgement present in my communication, and the hurt it has caused, and hope that my sincere apology can be accepted,” he said.
UCT stated: “We believe that the response was, on the face of it, inappropriate and disrespectful. Its content may no doubt have caused hurt and offence.”
UCT said it had measures in place to ensure that students were able to observe Eid while exams were ongoing, and these were communicated to deans and heads of departments a week ago.
Students sitting for exams are allowed to sit quietly at their desks and break their fast, as has been the case in the past, the university said.
They are also allowed to take a short break should they wish to leave an exam session, during which they would be escorted by an invigilator.
Students who wish not to write a paper during Eid on June 15 may apply for a deferred exam to be written early in the second semester and not later than six months, as has been the case previously.
Those with exams scheduled for the 8am session on June 15 can ask for a later start - they will write the same paper at 9am on the same day.
“There will no doubt be deep introspection within the department and the faculty about this matter.
“UCT as a secular institution has deep respect for all religions, as is 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,” UCT stated.
UCT Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) current affairs head Aaliyah Vayej said the incident was reflective of the university’s religious intolerance.
“I have seen the apology and I have been in contact with the student herself.
“Generally, it’s accepted, the apology is there, he put it in the public domain. But the fact that he sarcastically and snidely commented in his initial e-mail, it is just broadly more reflective of the institution’s religious intolerance,” Vayej said.
“As a student who is making a valid concern, it is really disheartening to face this from academics.
“We have been inundated with e-mails, from undergrads who have said ‘how come we are constantly subjected to having to validate our religion, and then be made to feel like an administration burden because of our religious belief?’.”
The MSA has been in contact with the exams office, UCT’s registrar as well as the SRC since January regarding exams during the fast. A response from black scholars in the English department - Associate Professor Barbara Boswell, Associate Professor Nadia Davids, Dr Chris Ouma, Dr Khwezi Mkhize and Dr Polo Moji and Associate Professor Harry Garuba - on social media has come out in strong condemnation of Higgins’s e-mail.
“Statements issued by senior faculty are understandably read by our own students and by communities within and outside of UCT as reflective of the department’s position and culture. It is clear to us that the statement feeds into an reinforces an underexamined structure of racism, Islamophobia and blatant disrespect toward students that is prevalent in our institutions and in our society,” they said.
The values expressed in Higgins’s e-mail did not reflect their own, they said.
“We are working daily with great care and diligence to ensure that together we establish an inclusive, collegiate and mutually respectful environment for students.
“We believe that to continue a conspiracy of silence around structural histories of racism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination undermines the project of transforming and decolonising the academy in SA.”