How I Reclaimed My Relationship with Ramadan – VICE

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This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
This year, Ramadan falls between the 23rd of March and the 21st of April. The rules of the holy month are quite well-known – no eating, drinking, smoking or having sex from sunrise to sundown. But what’s often overlooked are the personal reasons why hundreds of millions of people around the world follow them every year. 
Ramadan represents something different to each individual with Muslim heritage. For some, it’s a month of calm and reflection; for others, it’s synonymous with celebration and family time; others again see it as a way to question their modes of consumption.
I’m the daughter of an Algerian Muslim father and a Belgian Catholic mother. Growing up, my dad described our family as “believers, but not practising” – we had booze on the table at family dinners, for example. The only tradition we kept was Ramadan, which my parents started practising one year when we went on holiday to the Muslim side of the family. I was just a kid, so I started joining in when it was considered appropriate, around the age of 12 or 13. 
Growing up, I always struggled with a feeling of living in between cultures, which I later came to know as racial impostor syndrome. At 16, in a bout of teen identity crisis, I started praying five times a day and practising Islamic religious principles, in an attempt to figure out where I belonged. My dad and my brother started observing the prayers, too, and soon after, my mother converted to the faith. But my sister – a lesbian and an atheist – was left out. A few years later, in uni, I stopped praying all together and started living life detached from religion.
This is all to say that my relationship with religion changed a lot throughout my life, and my approach to Ramadan with it. No matter your personal beliefs, as someone with a Muslim background, you’re faced with the same questions every time the holy month rolls around: Should I do it this year? If yes, how? And, more importantly, why? 
Following Ramadan’s restrictions is a challenge, of course – especially if you don’t live in a context where everyone else around you is doing it. Some people decide not to follow the tradition, but don’t dare tell their family; others try their best but end up not being able to stick to it; lots of people put pressure on themselves to be exemplary Muslims, going to the mosque every evening and doing a lot of hasanat (good deeds). There are also those who question the rules they’ve been taught and try to reconcile them with their own worldview.
One of these people is my friend Yasmina Tayoub, 28, a Belgian-Moroccan dancer, choreographer and DJ. Over a mint tea and a plate of chebakia (stereotypical, I know!), I confessed to her I often feel little connection to the Muslim community today. 
Yasmina told me about a Messenger group for local, mostly queer young Muslims. Here I met two more people struggling with these questions: Miou, 28, is a tattoo artist and communications officer at an educational non-profit targeting undocumented people, and Abbas, 26, works in the culture sector. Both of them asked for their names to be anonymised to protect their privacy.
All four of us grew up in religious families – some more than others. We all went to religious classes at school and we all experienced a strict religious period. Then came an era of loss of faith or even outright rejection, followed by a time when we were spiritual but not religious. Finally, some of us found their way back to Islam.
As a feminist involved in queer spaces, the main reason for my rejection of Islam was that I could no longer tolerate the homophobic and sexist discourse adopted by many Muslims, especially those in my family. Miou, whose mum is Moroccan and dad is a Belgian convert, said they stopped seeing themselves as part of the religion when they researched it more and listened to conferences about the faith.
“My parents used Islam to control my body,” says Miou, over the phone. “I decided to quit the religion and our relationship, too. We haven’t spoken in three years.”
My friend Yasmina has Moroccan parents, both of them very religious. For her, the most important factor in her taking distance from the faith was the Islamophobic climate she grew up in.
“I think we underestimate the impact of Islamophobia and racism on our faith,” says Yasmina. “It’s difficult not to renounce part of your identity when the media, society and your own environment demonise it.” 
Yasmina’s desire to integrate with white society pushed her away from her community. Until, at 27, she started educating herself about systemic racism and the complex ramifications it can have on a person. “I realised I was trying to be one of those white people who believe in nothing, and that broke my heart,” she says.
I can relate to Yasmina. Entering your teens in the years following 9/11 as a Muslim was complicated, especially since you’re so impressionable to other people’s opinions of you, at that age. I was 12 when it happened, and I still remember how people’s attitudes towards my family and my Muslim classmates totally changed. It was the beginning of the association between Islam and terrorism – the beginning of the end.
Abbas’s parents are both Moroccan, and he grew up diligently studying different Islamic currents, from strict Wahhabism to more progressive interpretations. As a kid, he regularly went to the mosque. At 15, he decided to wear a hijab since, back then, he identified as a woman. 
Growing up, Abbas was always very passionate about Islam and used it as a guide to all his decisions. But around the age of 20, he began questioning his faith, particularly after reading works by the Greek philosopher Socrates.
“By then, I’d studied and taught Islam for years and yet I still had doubts,” says Abbas, over the phone. “So I wondered, ‘Maybe I’m not Muslim after all?’” 
This prompted a very brief identity crisis of about six months where he decided to stop wearing the hijab. He also realised that, subconsciously, he’d been suspicious about the religion since he was young, especially because of the physical and mental abuse he experienced at the mosque. “You’d be punished if you asked questions like, ‘Why do Christians think this and we think that?’,” he says. “It’s normal to be curious as a child.”
For most people, rejecting religion is a very lonely process. Above all, what we all felt we needed in our religious learnings was gentleness and love. “Islam was instilled in us through fear and superstition,” Yasmina says. “We learned to fear hell and God, but that’s not Islam – Islam is love.” 
And yet, so much of what we learned about how to live life as a Muslim was based on intimidation. Many teachings combined popular myths with religious principles, and left a deep impression on us as kids that eventually destabilised our faith as adults.
These included things like “Don’t walk on manholes because the devil lives underneath”, or “If you bite your nails and throw them away, the devil will scratch you with them in hell”. And this dynamic of fear was very much present during Ramadan, too – we all feared not being able to be perfect in the eyes of God and of being punished for our sins. 
Ever since I decided to take some distance from the faith, I’ve been experiencing a double sense of guilt, especially around this time. Sometimes, I wonder: Does it make sense for me to continue with the tradition even though I don’t pray regularly, or follow other rules? 
After rejecting Islam, Yasmina, Miou and I turned towards non-religious spiritual practices like meditation, alternative medicine, tarot, astrology. It’s as if we need rituals for our mental health, whatever those might be. But unlike Miou, Yasmina, Abbas and I have made peace with our religion, to varying degrees. Today, Miou identifies as trans and as an atheist. Morality is still important to them, though – they want to be a good person, “not out of fear, but because it is normal,” they say. 
What changed for me and Yasmina was finding out about feminist and queer religious leaders who’ve questioned sexist interpretations of the Qur’an and proposed new ones we recognise ourselves in. A surah (a chapter of the Qur’an) has many possible interpretations, and can quickly take on toxic meanings in the wrong hands. So far, men have exclusively dictated those interpretations. But this new generation of scholars maintains there’s no homophobia in the holy text, it all comes from the readings of homophobic people.
When I was studying religion, I was taught I couldn’t fast during my period because I wasn’t “clean”. But another way to read those passages is that fasting on your period could be bad for your health, both mental and physical – an interpretation based on compassion rather than shame. This is the type of message that makes sense to me. These new interpretations also allow me to connect some of my other spiritual practices with Islam – in the end, prayer is meditative and philosophical.
Abbas began reconnecting with the religion in 2018, only a few months after deciding to give up his faith, when one of his former Qur’an teachers invited him to a Sufism-influenced religious retreat. (Sufism is a form of Islam that focuses on ascetic and spiritual practices, rather than social rules.)
“I said no at first,” Abbas says. “I didn’t think of myself as a Muslim anymore and didn’t really like this branch of Islam.” But eventually, he decided to go anyway.
At the retreat, Abbas discovered an open community where homosexuality wasn’t taboo, where people of different genders could sit together in the mosque, and wearing the hijab wasn’t required. “It was unthinkable for me,” he says.
Islam is made up of five pillars: Professing your faith, praying five times a day, being charitable, following Ramadan and visiting Mecca on pilgrimage. Ramadan is certainly the most visible of the five, in a literal sense. 
Even though many people question their faith in private, people can clearly see whether you’re fasting or not. During Ramadan your doubts about the faith are laid bare in front of your loved ones. If you don’t follow the rules, you can pretty much expect comments and reactions  – it’s a difficult decision, a coming out as a non-Muslim of sorts, in some cases.
Today, Yasmina, Miou, Abbas and I have a totally different relationship towards Ramadan. “I used to wait for it impatiently,” Miou says. “Every year, I felt very emotional and always cried during the first prayer, which I systematically addressed to Palestine.” Miou used to think of this month as a time of purity, of reconnection, of family and peace. Now they have no contact with their family, “it’s painful, because I feel so alone”, they say.
Yasmina started doing Ramadan again a few years ago, but she’s now prioritising being gentle with herself since she has a history of disordered eating. “I listen to my body and if I feel that something’s not right, I eat,” she says. One rule we both came to question during our conversation is about not drinking water during the fast: How could that be good for you? And where does this rule come from?
Yasmina’s new approach applies to the way she prays, too. “My sister started to pray again but I didn’t dare do it because I didn’t know if I could keep this up regularly,” she says. “But in reality, I’m thinking more and more that I shouldn’t put these pressures on myself. One prayer a day is already good for you and for your path towards Allah.”
Abbas has never had to fast because he has diabetes, so he’s always struggled to connect with this tradition. He now understands this month to be more of an opportunity to check in with himself. “In this month, I want to work on my relationship with God and myself,” he says. “We say the devil is not among us during Ramadan, but our ego still is. I want to observe my behaviour in light of this.”
As for me, for the first time in years, I decided to fast daily for the whole month. In the past, the process was more confusing, I’d do it a few days here and there and often end up partying even when I didn’t want to. Let’s just say, fasting while hungover is a terrible idea.
Besides the fast, I’ve also set a few other goals for myself: meditating, taking things slow both socially and professionally, taking a hard look at my consumption to simplify both my purchases and how I eat at night. I also want to avoid going out, and instead spend some quiet time with close friends and family. 
While I write this piece, Ramadan isn’t over yet, so it’s possible I’ll “fail” at some point – and that’s OK. I doubt you’ll find this interpretation in the Qur’an, but my motto this year is just chilling.
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