What you are about to read is a post from the heart. When writing this article I literally let the words pour out of my soul. I felt like there was something I just needed to let out. Some of you may read this post and the words will resonate with you, you will see your own feelings and experiences in my words. Others may glean knowledge that helps you to interact and understand Muslims better, to be able to come to a common understanding, which opens up dialogue between us. Some of you may even feel offended or slighted by my words. You may feel that my offence has caused you offence. Whatever you take from this I just hope that you take something.
Growing up as a British, Pakistani Muslim. I always felt that I was living on the line between two worlds. I went to school and exchanged tidbits about the latest boy bands and messed around with my friends on my street corner just like any other British kid. However when I was home there was an opportunity to delve into another side of my identity. That of a Pakistani Muslim. As with most children of my generation, we grew up learning to expertly balance the two. Knowing when to code the conversation and how. However, we were the lucky ones. We grew up in a pre 911 era. We hadn’t become the big bad wolf yet, threatening to blow down and destroy western civilization, with one puff of our extremist mouths. We were still kind of invisible. Our beautiful brown skin made us stand out, and yes on many occasions we dealt with racism and abuse. But our religion had yet to become the stick that we would become accustomed to being beaten with. Our Muslim identities managed to fly under the radar.
But there were times when growing up I felt that my two worlds began to merge and threaten to collide. During the month of Ramadan, my Muslimness was so visible, that it shone bright like a distress beacon on a stormy night. To be honest, for me I felt proud during this month to be part of the Muslim faith. I felt a strong solidarity with my fellow Muslims that were also observing the holy month. I’m fortunate to have been raised in an Islamic and politically minded family, With both strong patriarchal and matriarchal influences that made it easier for me to navigate this path. Maybe things that happened shocked or upset me but I were equipped from a young age to deal with what may transpire.
When we were old enough to fast, I started to notice that during Ramadan we stood out. We would be in the play ground during lunch break, lounging in a corner trying to pass the time or we would be excused from our sports lesson if the weather was too hot and the garages behind school were visibly empty of any of the young Muslims that smoked secretive cigarettes there the rest of the school year. Other wise we continued as normal. But these slight differences for the month made us suddenly visible, made us stand out from our counter parts. Made people want to question and sometimes even separate us based on these alien difference.
We grew up seeing our elders fasting and as young children we all literally begged our parents to let us join in. Every year we would hold our breath, wondering if we were old enough yet. We rejoiced the year our parents finally decided that we could do our first fast. We felt a strong sense of belonging and community at even such a young age. The first year we fasted, we were usually allowed to have water to help us to get used to the process. My Mother even started us with half day fasts until lunch time. Contrary to popular belief, we were never forced or obliged to join in. We literally begged for our place at the Iftar table, that’s how much Ramadan meant to us as kids.
But nothing really prepares you for the outside world and the clash of cultures that can ensue. I fully understand that people are genuinely curious or that some people have not had an opportunity to learn about Ramadan or even Islam for that matter, but it’s all about respect. For these people I am willing to answer any question, no matter how trivial it may seem, I am willing to exchange dialogue and open up the discussion. But what always got me was the people who treated you with thinly veiled disgust, ridicule and an all round attitude of thinking, what we were doing was pointless and weird.
I get it, the idea of someone withholding from food and water during daylight hours to many people seems crazy and totally out there. It’s not something that everyone can understand or comprehend. But just because something doesn’t fit into your culture or seems alien to you doesn’t mean that we can’t respect each other and exchange knowledge in a decent and respectful manner.
But I’m sure I speak for thousands of British Muslims if not hundreds of thousands of western Muslims when I say that we are tired of the same conversation playing out year after year. It’s like an endless merry-go-round. One which leaves you feeling sick but you just can’t make it stop. In these situations it’s always the same. The look of shock and horror as their hand flies up to clutch their face. The almost comical way their eyes widen in utter disbelief. Then their mouths utter the words we so don’t long to hear. ‘’Oh my god, seriously you can’t even drink water????’’
Yes you reply, wishing it would end there. Sometimes it respectfully does but on many occasions it doesn’t and we learn to brace ourselves for what comes next.
‘Oh my, that’s so dangerous/crazy/unbelievable.’
Then there are those that give you a beaming smile and utter the words ”Ah great way to lose weight/ what a great diet idea /maybe I should fast to lose weight / ohh bet you will be loving the weight loss during Ramadan.” I can’t possibly fathom how anyone can miss the point of empathising with those less fortunate than yourselves and see it as a rapid weight loss program. Let alone believe that this is an appropriate response to a Muslim during Ramadan.
I understand to some people the idea of going without food and water for a few hours seems like some kind of crazy, that’s ok, we have our reasons and we are all different people with different beliefs and traditions. It’s not like anyone is going to force this outlandish idea on you. So take a breath and relax it’s ok, we got this.
It’s not even what people say, it’s the tone they use and the looks that go with these exclamations. That look that makes you feel uncomfortable, judged and at times pitied. It’s the pitying looks that really get to me. I choose to go without food and water to empathise with those who are suffering and less fortunate. To understand what their lives are like so that my heart may open a little more. So please do not pity me, keep that emotion and direct it towards those really in need.
For Muslims open dialogue has become imperative in this post 911 world. There is so much misinformation and mistrust that we have to ensure full transparency in order to be accepted or even tolerated in western societies. It’s almost as if we have to justify our existence and take on the responsibility of dispelling the fears in others, rather than people trying to conquer their own fears and prejudices. Sometimes I admit I feel an anger inside of me when I think of how we are always made to feel that we have to account for and justify every belief, every idea or every tradition that we have. That we can not be until we have justified and proved that we have the right to co-exist.
However on the other hand I also understand how important it is for us to change the narrative ourselves. By opening our doors and our hearts. By showing the honesty of who we really are and what we believe, can we create true allies.
I smile whenever I think of the huge İftars we used to have in London, and now still have as an expat in Turkey. How Muslim and non-Muslim opened the fast and ate Iftar together. Talking, laughing, reveling in the similarities of human kindness. I recall with a lifted heart how some of my non Muslim friends fasted to show solidarity and to create empathy and understanding. I love how in the UK the mosques open their doors to visitors and how people flocked to learn more. This is the beauty and diversity of our communities. That moment when non muslims meet us at the point where our civilisations blend and join us in our world. These are the things that make me proud of being a British Muslim, these are the memories that I will carry with me through the rest of the year. They will sooth my soul when I wonder why the world is as unfair as it is.
But sadly what I can’t also forget are the incidents that shook me to my core. Which left me wondering why some people think that in this age, when Muslims are already suffering under a modern day McCarthy witch hunt. That it is ok to make someone feel bullied, excluded or ridiculed merely based on their religious beliefs and practices.
I remember one Ramadan when I was in my early 20s and worked as a recruitment consultant in the city. Someone in the office had just returned from a trip to Turkey and had brought back Baklava to the office. As I was speaking with a client on the phone, my middle-aged, upper class, white, male director thought it would be highly amusing to sneak up on me and press a piece of Baklava to my mouth. To this day I can still remember how all eyes in the office turned to me when I let out a yelp of shock. I remember his face leering over me as he gleefully remarked that one piece wouldn’t hurt. Imagine how I felt. A young girl just trying to keep her head down, do her job and observe Ramadan. Only to be ridiculed in front of the whole office by the epitome of white privilege. An upper class, middle aged white man. No one spoke up, in fact no one said a word, all I heard was his laughter. He thought he was being funny and highly entertaining and didn’t seem to understand why I didn’t get the joke. I’m sure he was just seconds away from calling me the party pooper that he thought I was. Regardless of my age, vulnerability or the fact that at that moment I felt utterly exposed I had the strength to vocalise and point out the his inhumane and brutish actions.
**On a side note my non muslim client who overheard the whole conversation was as disgusted as I was and as a show of solidarity called the office to lodge a formal complaint.
Maybe this experience seems extreme to you but it happened, it was and always will be a part of my history and something that shapes my Muslim identity. Whether it is extreme situations like this or other micro aggressions in the workplace or socially, this has an effect on how we perceive the world around us. In a time where many western Muslims are already starting to feel alienated from the spaces which they occupy, it’s so important to draw us back together as people. To find our common ground. So this Ramadan, please ask questions and initiate a dialogue. Ask your work colleague the questions that you didn’t dare utter before. Pop into your local Mosque and get the Imam to show you around. Knock on the door of your fasting neighbours. Join us to break fast. Believe me we will be more than happy to show you around our world.
But what I implore you not to do is to ridicule or judge. Be kind and considerate with your words and action. How can we build social cohesion when our very beliefs are mocked and put on trial. so let’s work together to create a better understanding of each others paths and journeys.