Ramadan is a time for friends and families to come together, but the coronavirus pandemic and UK lockdown mean that this year, social distancing has disrupted the month. Here, one writer shares how this has given her time to reflect on what really matters.
Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 90s was anything but multicultural. The idea of someone understanding my race or religion was as likely as my parents allowing me to wear a bikini; it was always going to be a hard sell.
This meant that my relationship with my religion has always been complicated. I remember feeling held back from all the things I wasn’t allowed to do and trying to justify it by telling myself I had a deeper connection with God.
I also remember, from the ages of four to 12, sitting in the library next to the assembly hall where I was granted “free time” while the other children attended assemblies that began with the Lord’s prayer. I was able to listen through the thinly paned glass doors, and soon I could recite the prayer along with the other children – but always under my breath as it felt like my biggest secret. This was probably my first experience of hiding my belief in the God I was told to believe in.
At home, being a Sudanese Muslim was full of thrills. Islamic religion intertwined with Sudanese culture meant we would learn songs in Arabic and eat delicious food, while thanking God and learning prayers. My parents made religion feel like a fun aspect of our lives.
So, when Ramadan came around each year, it was treated like an exciting routine that we would all do together. We would plan meals to eat every night and anticipate how we were going to indulge. We would have a date palm (a type of fruit) to break our fast, followed by homemade soup before a feast.
At weekends, we would retreat to cousins’ houses so we could fast together, staying up into all hours of the night playing games and watching movies. We would cook food while dancing on the kitchen tiles, and enjoyed the sweetness of the children’s laughter and the games they played. Ramadan was something we would all look forward to and it took away all doubt I had in feeling that religion held me back. When I was in that environment with my family, I felt safe. But outside of that environment when I was with my friends, religion felt like a weight.
A few years ago I was hit with a health issue that meant I required treatment over a two-year span. It didn’t only change my life, but it changed my ability to fast during Ramadan.
When the month of Ramadan was approaching, I asked my doctor if I was OK to fast. Like in any hospital, they were rightly cautious about telling anyone what to do with regards to any religious activity. Nevertheless, I was advised not to and I knew it was important to take that advice seriously. That year was the first time since I was a child that I didn’t fast and suddenly I felt left out all over again.
I hadn’t realised how much the month had come to mean me. I increased my prayers and gave extra money to charity – both things that are a highly encouraged part of Ramadan – but I couldn’t engage in the conversations on how fasting was going.
I retreated to feeling like that seven-year-old girl, left out of something that I so desperately wanted to be a part of. It made me realise that I never actually doubted my belief in God. I just doubted how my faith would benefit me at a time when it felt like it was separating me from my friends.
After taking medical advice this year, I was told that if I felt healthy and fit I could fast, but with caution, so I have decided to get back into the groove of fasting. I’m currently fasting for four days on and one day off. I’ve told myself that if I don’t feel great then I will stop.
This felt so conflicting since I’d spent a huge part of my life pushing away religious pressures (Ramadan is perhaps considered one of the biggest pressures for many Muslims), and yet it was the one I wanted to do so desperately. It felt like I had something to prove to myself, to show that I was part of a community that I had spent a lot of my life pushing away. I wanted to prove that not only was I part of it, but that I belonged in it.
Ramadan has always been about family and friends laughing, singing and praying together. The challenge this year is that we won’t have that opportunity because of coronavirus. But I hope it’ll also give you the chance to reflect on who you are, what’s most important to you, and just how much you love your family and friends.
I was asked to write a poem about my feelings towards Ramadan this year by Facebook and Instagram, and it focuses on having strength in our faith while missing our loved ones (below). I hope that it allows people to feel what I feel – that we will be together again and we must always look to a brighter tomorrow.
Basma has dedicated this article to everyone at the NHS, with thanks
Images: Getty, courtesy of author