Millions of Muslims across the world are currently marking the month of Ramadan by fasting from dawn to sunset each day. Among them is journalist Sarah Shaffi, who’ll be keeping a Ramadan diary for stylist.co.uk, sharing how the month is going and what she’s reflecting on.
Week four: As we come to the end of Ramadan, I’m feeling exhausted — the kind of tiredness where your eyes just feel heavy and your body doesn’t like anything but lying down.
Despite that, I’ve been lucky enough to have had a pretty good month. I’ve mostly been able to work from home, which means I haven’t had to worry about an uncomfortable and long commute. I’ve mostly avoided any kind of illness — although I am now nursing the beginnings of a cold caught from someone who caught it at the nightly prayer, taraweeh, which can be a hotbed of germs because of the sheer amount of people who attend.
Most importantly, my spiritual journey has been satisfying. I’ve felt more at peace than in other years, and have been able to let go of small things that I usually would have been annoyed by. And you know what? Not getting annoyed feels great!
I’ve also spent time with a lot of incredible women this Ramadan. My mum tops the list of course, but I’ve also been to iftars at friend’s houses, where we’ve broken our fasts together, hosted a number of events where I reaffirmed old friendships and made new ones, and interviewed incredible women like Ayisha Malik. In short, I’ve spent time with a gamut of women who illustrate that there are myriad ways of being Muslim.
In a world where we’re still seeing Muslim women stereotyped in pop culture, it’s important to hear from the everyday voices. Not all Muslim women experience Ramadan the same, and not everyone has a good Ramadan. One woman who messaged me via Twitter said that she had found doing the whole month “so so tough as a recovering addict plus recovering from a breakdown”. “My takeaway this year,” she continued, “my 3rd after lapsing for a looong time, is: baby steps are ok, my goal is for deepening my connection not about competing with others (even children have found it easier than me ) and also to ride out the doubts and the anger and the painful lack of connection.”
I want to give over part of this last diary entry to a few more Muslim women to share their reflections of Ramadan 2019.
Namra Amir, publicity assistant
In the past when I was younger, Ramadan was a time of moaning and being irritable with my family. We’d communicate through grunts and the occasional cries of hunger. Then when we could open our fast, we were starving and couldn’t hold up a conversation. The only words spoken were requests to pass the food around.
This year, moving to London to pursue a career in publishing and leaving my family back home in Ireland, Ramadan took on a whole new meaning. You may read the above paragraph and think: “That doesn’t sound like fun family bonding.”
But on the contrary it is. Even if were complaining and barely communicating, we were doing it together as a team. I came to miss the way my Mum would try to toughen me up and tell me ‘I’m fine’, I missed the way my Dad would try to distract me with Bollywood films.
Looking back at the scolding and watching the films silently together made me realise that when you’re with the ones you love during Ramadan, the hunger isn’t as strong as the bond of family.
A. M. Dassu, author
I’ve had a horrendous Ramadan this year, one of my worst in terms of spiritual development. I’ve been overwhelmed with a house renovation project (quick turn around before my mum’s house sells — so stressful timelines) and I’ve had to travel everyday to her city, spend all day dealing with tradesmen while fasting, rush home and deal with the kids and home chores, whilst still dealing with builders on the phone till iftaar.
For this reason, I haven’t been able to read the Quran as much as I usually do, and I’ve been exhausted for taraweeh.
I find it so upsetting, I feel as if I’ve lost my whole Ramadan but my mum and friends are all saying that Allah is making me gain reward through other means (serving my mum).
Noor Sufi, assistant editor
Each year, Ramadan teaches me something new, but most importantly, it recharges my faith and instils a sense of empathy as I’m reminded of the less fortunate who don’t have access to food and water (and live this reality every day). It reminds me of how lucky I am and makes me feel grateful for all the blessings I do have. In this super busy world, it’s easy to take life’s simple pleasures for granted.
Ramadan also teaches me about piety, patience, kindness, charity, togetherness, humility and how to maintain self-control, while guarding myself from greed and over-indulgence.
Beyond food, the act of fasting makes me conscious of my thoughts and actions and enables me to focus on my deeds.
I’ve learnt that although fasting is soon coming to an end, our good deeds and our focus on what is important shouldn’t.
People often say ‘oh fasting must be so hard’ and ‘I couldn’t go a day without food and water,’ it truly is my favourite time of year and the peace I feel is beautiful.
Safiyyah Choycha, designer
My spiritual journey throughout this Ramadan has been different to other years — it was one where the focus was on contemplating more than doing.
In previous years I would put a lot of pressure on myself to try and complete the Quran and focus on increasing acts of worship (which is important) but it started to feel like a tick box activity. This Ramadan I wanted to take away something that I could implement every day throughout my life. I wanted a deep internal change.
I felt my connection with Allah was very one way: it was always me asking from him, my wants and needs. It was always me talking to him; I never stopped to think that in order to build a beautiful connection I have to let him talk to me through his words and message.
Being able to speak and listen is the fundamentals to any good relationship and I decided to make a conscious effort to take one lesson every day from the Quran and let it sit in my heart. To think about how it could relate to me throughout my everyday life, how it can make me a better person as I know I am and always will be a working progress with my spirituality. This year has been truly eye opening in so many ways because of that.
Sitting on the floor, ready to partake in a meal after the breaking of the fast, were Muslims and non-Muslims, junior staff from publishing, and people who hold a lot of power in their hands. The event was a collaboration between BAME in Publishing, a network I co-founded with a friend (Wei Ming Kam) and publisher Hachette UK’s Thrive network.
In the run up to the iftar, I couldn’t help but reflect a little on how I got there. How did I, a brown Muslim girl from a Pakistani family, end up standing in front of a bunch of people, looking very visibly different, and be proud and confident about that?
Being Muslim is a big part of my identity and always has been. I loved fasting (or trying to) and telling my friends at school what I did for Eid, I took huge pride in finishing the Quran for the first time (and enjoying the sweets that formed part of the celebration), and I’ve always sat and patiently (ok, mostly) explained that no, I can’t even have water when I’m fasting.
But it’s sometimes been difficult being a Muslim, and being visibly so. When I was younger I sometimes felt embarrassed wearing a shalwar kameez out and about (even though, let’s be honest, I look fire in them), and I still occasionally feel self-conscious if I’ve got my head covered by a scarf in public.
It’s taken me a long time to realise that that’s all down to fear, fear of being seen as “different” and how that gets you treated. I can pinpoint that fear to two incidents from my childhood.
I’ll never forget the girl at primary school, whose name I don’t know because she was much older that I was and in a different year, who told me to “go back to where I came from” and the fact that telling the dinner lady resulted in absolutely nothing but meaningless platitudes towards me. I’ll never forget the boy up the road, Richard, who told me I couldn’t play with him and the other neighbourhood children (even though they were my friends first and for longer) because my skin wasn’t the same colour as theirs.
At home, I was brought up in the loving embrace of a family and a community that took pride in its religion and its various cultural influences; at school and play I’d had two formative experiences that told me those were things I should be ashamed of.
As a child, it’s difficult to understand those experiences, as an adult it’s difficult to shake them — it’s no exaggeration to say I think about them a lot, mainly because now I realise the views of those kids didn’t exist in a vacuum, that someone (their parents?) must have taught them that hate. That’s terrifying.
While I think about those two (and they are two of many) racist incidents in my life, I don’t give them the credit for making me who I am today. I’m not stronger or better or more confident because of them. I’m stronger and better and more confident because of the loving embrace of my family and community.
And it’s the things my family and community taught me that I want to pass on to other people, and to have reflected through me: a large capacity for love, a willingness to embrace people from all backgrounds, an openness about who I am.
Standing in front of the people at the iftar event, that’s what I tried to put out into the world. Here was a group of people, some familiar with Ramadan, some not, sitting on the floor and ready to partake in a meal with friends and strangers, employees and bosses. The openness and warmth in that room was a little overwhelming, and I hope that I returned it in spades.
Ramadan is partially about community — and looking around that room as the sun set outside, I felt proud of the community we’d all created.
Week two: How many times a day do you swear?
Are you a secret swearer, someone who likes to pepper everyday conversation with profanities, or do you save swear words for special occasions?
Whichever it is, during Ramadan you’re not really supposed to do it (you’re not really supposed to do it at all, but ESPECIALLY not during Ramadan). As well as a fast of the body, Ramadan is a fast of the mind, and that includes gossiping, backbiting and swearing. And let me tell you, not swearing for a whole month is hard (not gossiping and backbiting are much easier, because I know they’re not good to do even when I’m not fasting).
Lest you think I’m like an old-school sailor on shore leave every day of my life, let me assure you that I swear relatively little. I save curse words for when I hurt myself — I’m like the clumsy heroine in a rom com, only there’s no guy who looks like John Cho coming to my rescue when I bang my elbow on a door/stub my toe just by walking/scratch my hand against a brick wall (side note: please cast John Cho as the romantic lead in more stuff). And I save swearing for when I’m really, really annoyed.
And yet, despite the lack of profanities in my everyday vocabulary, I still find avoiding swear words during Ramadan very difficult to do.
Firstly, they’re everywhere. In the first week of Ramadan I picked up a novel I had started prior to the month and the f-word leapt out of the page at me. I scrolled through Twitter and there are on my feed are swear words peppering various tweets. I went to work and someone dropped a couple of swear words next to me. I watched the trailer for Always Be My Maybe, which features a very sweary (and very funny) scene.
Secondly, swearing is such a reflex. I can remember as a child knowing that swearing was bad, and it being a very rebellious thing to do to use a swear word. Now, language has evolved to the point where (most) swear words are accepted in casual conversation, and aren’t seen as offensive. It means that it’s sometimes easier for us to swear than it is not to.
So it’s hard not to be exposed to swearing during Ramadan (and I’d never want to police anyone else’s use of cursing) but how do I try and avoid doing it myself? When there’s so much swearing around, how do I stop it bleeding into my own vocabulary?
Well, there’s The Good Place method - replacing swear words with terms like fork and shirt. Or there’s pretending like I’m in a classic novel and using words like crumbs and terms like “what the deuce”.
While Muslims do want to end up in the good place (a little Muslim TV humour there for you), I think people would look at me strangely if I went around shouting “fork” every time I wanted to swear, and the same is true for acting like I’m from a Dickens novel. And really, by replacing swear words with other words, am I not turning those words into swearing?
So there’s really only one option left, and that’s to try and change my vocabulary. And, while it’s been fun writing about swearing, there is a serious point to all this. Swearing can be very useful — in fact, it can even be good for you as studies have shown it can increase our tolerance to pain (that explains why swearing is my go-to when I unexpectedly injure myself), and that there’s a positive correlation between knowledge, familiarity of swear words and higher intelligence levels. But swearing, I think, can also sometimes be a crude and easy way to express emotions, one that is more about quick reaction than measured response. Not being able to swear during Ramadan does make me thing about why and how I use swear words in other parts of my life.
Personally, I mostly use swear words when I can’t be bothered to think of something better to say. They’re quick, they’re easy, they’re an understandable shorthand. But during Ramadan, when I’m swearing less, I realise that by not swearing, I’m being forced into thinking more about what I’m reacting to, and how I feel about it. What do I feel annoyed by? Why am I angry? What’s the best reaction to this situation that is causing my blood to boil? All of those are things I think about more when I’m not swearing during Ramadan.
Part of Ramadan is, for me, about reconnection, and as well as with Allah, for me it’s about reconnecting with myself as well and grounding myself. It may sound odd, but by not swearing for a month, I reconnect with my emotions and feelings, and find myself in a better place spiritually, mentally and physically. Until I walk into a door, that is.
Week one: I’ve been thinking a lot about food recently, which I suppose anyone would expect given it’s Ramadan. But my focus on food hasn’t been for the reasons many would think.
In the run-up to and during the first week of Ramadan, I’ve spent a lot of time in London. One of the worst things, if not the absolute worst thing, about the city is its large homeless population. Walking down Pancras Road each day, I pass dozens of people sleeping rough in plain view of coffee shops and restaurants galore, saying hello and giving spare change whenever I can but knowing I don’t make much of a difference to them.
A couple of weeks before Ramadan began, I passed one man, probably younger than I am, asking passers-by for a cup of tea. We went into the local Costa where he went for fruit tea and a ham and cheese toastie (very sweetly and astutely asking me if it was okay that he chose ham). As I swept my card over the machine to make the purchase, it really hit home just how easy it is for me to purchase food, yet just how inaccessible it is for some people.
A few days later, I took a bus to Charing Cross, and the man sitting next to me got off and joined the end of a very, very long and winding queue of homeless people waiting for food that was being distributed by a charity. Either side of this queue were chain restaurants, eateries advertising pre-theatre menus, and one of the most exclusive banks in the world.
The two experiences meant that I was thinking about food a lot in the period before Ramadan, and how much those of us who have it take it for granted.
This Ramadan contains some of the longest fasts I’ve ever kept in my life, with little change in the length of each one over the course of the month. Given the very short window for eating - roughly 9pm to 3.30am - and the fact that I also need to fit sleep and praying into this window, it’s tempting to cram as much food as possible into my mouth during those brief hours I’m not fasting.
But that would defeat one of the reasons for fasting in the first place. When I was a child, and less articulate about what Ramadan meant, I’d explain to school friends that I fasted so I’d know how people who didn’t have enough food felt. Although not totally inaccurate, I look back now and see how simplistic and, let’s be honest (and honesty is key during Ramadan), patronising that is.
I don’t fast so I can experience some hunger pangs and pretend that’s what people who are consistently deprived of food feel like, and now I know and aren’t I woke? I fast so that I can appreciate what I do have, and remember that not everyone has the same luxuries that I do (among other reasons). Not everyone can walk into a supermarket or restaurant and buy fresh, affordable, tasty things to eat. Access to food should be a right, not a privilege, but unfortunately in today’s world it’s definitely the latter.
The world produces enough food to feed everyone, yet the latest statistics from the United Nations estimate that around 821 million people in the world were undernourished in 2017. That means that 1 in every nine people don’t have enough food to be healthy and lead an active life. One in four of the world’s children, says the UN, are stunted because of a lack of food.
Those are incredibly sobering statistics.
It’s easy to think of hunger as a problem that is oceans away, but, as I and thousands of other people see with our own eyes every day on the streets of London, and as the thousands of people who have to turn to food banks experience every year, hunger - constant, gnawing hunger - is a problem right here at home. According to FareShare, 8.4 million people in the UK are struggling to afford to eat.
But what can we do about it? As individuals, most of us aren’t in a position to fix homelessness or food insecurity. But we are in a position to do our bit. We can stop wasting so much food, buying only what we need to help decrease the amount of food we send to landfill each year. We can support charities like FareShare, which redistributes food industry surplus, or Nishkam SWAT, the group I saw near Charing Cross handing out meals to the homeless, or our local foodbanks. We can stop and offer someone we see living on the street a bite to eat, and even if we don’t have change we can just say hello and look them in the eye.
I’ll be trying to do all of that this Ramadan and beyond, and remembering that my hunger during this month - no matter how bad I think it is - is but fleeting.