• Women breaking their fast with dates. (Getty Images )
When it comes to fasting it's, as Facebook would say, complicated.
Sarah Malik

8 May 2019 - 4:52 PM  UPDATED 14 May 2019 - 2:17 PM

It's 2005 and I am a fourth year law/arts student. It's Ramadan and everyone I know has that look of pale-faced lethargy that comes with abstaining from food in the daylight hours.  

In contrast, my cheeks are ruddy and satiated. You see, I have my period and therefore am not fasting. 

As I walk back to my dorm, I reflexively look to see if I am not spotted by anybody I know and take out my falafel roll. I gratefully munch on the sauce-drenched sandwich, happy that my energy levels are up enough to get through all the work I need to do.

Suddenly I see Mahmood*, a Pakistani international student friend who shares the same dorm. I freeze in fear and hide my face shamefully. He looks disappointed and shocked at my furtive food eating and stomps away. I remember a conversation we share before Ramadan about the foods we liked to eat at Iftar and him reminiscing about home-made food back home. The food and rituals we had in common despite the differences in our experiences as first- and second-generation migrants.  

I want to rush to say, "Wait, guess what I have an excuse! You see, I'm on my period!" 

But it's too late. Like so much in the community in which I grew up in, appearances matter more than reality. The fact I was being cold-shouldered for something I wasn't even 'guilty' of, seemed to be my perfect luck. 

What Bob and Mahmood had in common was an assumption it was ok for them to have any kind of judgment on my life or experience.

In many families I grew up around it was customary to not to eat in front of those who are fasting as a kind of hat tip to those committed to the fasting regime. Menstruating women, the sick and elderly, travellers, those who are breastfeeding or pregnant are exempt from the Islamic obligation of fasting in Ramadan would guiltily skate the edges of the proudly abstaining fasters - the strong, the young, the male. 

But in many ways, while meritorious in intention, this practice entrenches the invisibility of women's experiences.

Muslim communities are not alone in viewing periods with a reticence. Many argue for this reticence in the name of modesty. But when modesty excludes safe and open discussions about female biology and leaves young girls like me shamefaced in the street, it's not enough. When it means some men are blithely unaware of basic gender differences, it's not enough. 

It's an experience shared by some women I know. "I eat in the cupboard!" "It's so embarrassing to tell my dad, so I pretend to wake up and even pray." An Aunty giggles when her son asks her why she is not fasting, "You'll find out when you're older." Another says exasperated, "I even pretend to eat at work, so the colleagues I've told don't get confused."  

You see the policing doesn't stop there. It's mirrored with white people, keen to get involved in the action of the exotic event known as Ramadan they've seen on the news. With their newly acquired tolerance, they are bewildered and confused at what they see as the inconsistency of an intermittent faster, at failing at your own standard. 

But also, what if I just didn't feel like it today? Would that be ok?

I remember one colleague, who we shall call Bob, spying me eating secretly with shock, "But it's Ramadan!" he protested. 

Mate, I don't even know you, so I really don't want to talk about my period with you. But also, what if I just didn't feel like it today? Would that be ok?

This, my friends, is what it is like being a woman in Ramadan and just a Muslim woman in general. People seem to love telling you what to do and their assumptions about how to do it. What Bob and Mahmood had in common was an assumption it was ok for them to have any kind of judgment on my life or experience. 

It's a problem if you practice, and it's a problem if you don't. 

It's why I think I spend much of my working life fasting on the down low. I've swallowed dates, squashed in my purse at press conferences, eaten a box of Pad Thai on the side of the road from picket lines and inwardly groaned when asked to stay back for a news story 10 minutes before Iftar, but pressed on always.

When you are a woman of colour you want to prove your chops, to look strong and as capable, so nobody can question your position. But maybe it was also convenient for me, perhaps it was easier to blend in, to avoid awkward questions. 

It's the complicated dance of any public performance of faith, how our intentions intersect with how others perceive us. Granted this is difficult in such a community event like Ramadan, but essentially, despite being a communal obligation, it really is about your own spiritual growth, connection and empathy with those less fortunate. 

I do understand though that by being open and dealing with awkward questions offers an opportunity to crack the invisible status quo on both sides. 

So here is some unsolicited Aunty-style advice - if a woman (or man) fasts or does not fast, if they keep it quiet, if they do it sometimes or not all, it's as Facebook would say 'complicated', and actually none of your business.  

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