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Family, Food and Faith: The Meaning of Ramadan


By Soaliha Iqbal

Lawyers, poets, mothers and politicians – no matter their differences, Muslims all over the Australia are united in their anticipation of the start of Ramadan, which begins in mid-May this year. With the approaching holy month, they share their stories on what Ramadan means to them personally. 

Jarri Heydar, 23, at a cafe on his resident campus at University of New South Wales.

“A big part of Ramadan is also celebrating it with your family and friends, sitting down, at the same time, breaking your fast [together],” says Jarri Heydar, 23, an international student living on campus at UNSW.

Heydar moved to Australia from Pakistan two years ago to study Law. Without his family, he was afraid to spend his Ramadan alone, but was pleasantly surprised to find his campus so accommodating.

“It was the most wonderful thing, because you have the only Muslim chef as a part of the staff at Goldstein dining hall and he basically does all the work for free.

He volunteered and was like, you know, ‘everyone deserves a good Ramadan’, so then it started in earnest. The next near, which was last year, they actually extended an invitation to everyone. All my mates from college would come down to a Muslim breakfast.”

For Heydar, Ramadan is has more meaning than for most. Heydar identifies as gay, and Ramadan allows him an opportunity to resist the exclusion of conservative Muslims based on his sexuality.

“Ramadan has great opportunity to do just that – to say that look, I am gay and I am Muslim and I will participate in Ramadan, and I will do everything that a normal, straight Muslim does and it will be just as valid.”

Mehreen Faruqi | Image: UNSW Engineering

Mehreen Faruqi, Green’s MP, also moved to Australia from Pakistan.

“Ramadan is the time in Australia where I miss Pakistan the most, because in a country where everyone observes Ramadan the whole place is geared towards it, so we have shorter work hours, or we start early rather and finish early,” she says.

“In the evening it’s a big gathering of friends and family, and it’s party time every evening when you break the fast.

It’s very different obviously here in Australia because you’re in a small minority who are fasting, and for me it depends, if Parliament is sitting I really have very little flexibility, so sometimes you’re in the chambers speaking when it’s sunset and time to break the fast, so you’re just doing it, you know, not in the same way you’d do it in Pakistan.”

For Dr Faruqi, her favourite part of Ramadan is breaking her fast with her loved ones.

“Often in Parliament we do actually have some events – different communities might hold events in Parliament which are for breaking the fast and they might hold them outside as well, and that’s really enjoyable,” she says.

“I think that’s the best part, being with people, and celebrating with people. It’s called an iftar when you break your fast, and I often hold a women’s iftar every Ramadan as well in Australia, so it’s a good opportunity for women to get together, and last year we were treated to some poetry and song as well.”

Sara Mansour, awarded Citizen of the Year 2017. | Image: Bankstown Poetry Slam

Sara Mansour, 25, is a lawyer, a poet, Young Citizen of the Year 2017, and the founder of Bankstown Poetry Slam, the largest poetry slam in Australia.

“I think that we as Muslim women and living in the west really try to focus on the positives in our faith, especially now that it’s always being demonised and misrepresented in the media,” she said, of identifying and as an Australian Muslim and wearing a hijab.

“I think growing up, there has always been a very strong social justice question that I got for being Muslim. But I think that intensifies in today’s current climate. So, having a focus on that helps me reconcile my faith with what other people think about it, and how it’s being misrepresented in the media.”

“I think all Muslims have encountered a little bit of ignorance when speaking about Ramadan, even if it’s something like “Oh my god you can’t have any water? How do you survive?”. And it’s like, you will survive if you don’t have water for 12 hours,” she said when describing the ignorance she has faced during Ramadan.

Sara’s favourite part of Ramadan is the unity that she feels with the Muslim community.

“You’re all struggling together, so in a sense that’s a really beautiful thing.

“It’s really nice in a sense that you’re refocusing your energies and spending time with your families, friends, and also keeping in check your spirituality. That’s what I really enjoy, that’s why I look forward to Ramadan every year.”

Samirah (36), her husband Rehan (34), and their children Zayn (12) and Ibrahim (8).

Samirah Ahmed, 36, an Australian from rural Queensland, “fell in love” with Islam in her first year at university when she converted.

“It was around the same time as September 11th, but it didn’t change the way that I felt about Islam. In fact, it strengthened it,” she said.

“Islam was a relatively new concept for me, I grew up in a very Aussie family, you know. We were a beach side town, we were very typically Australian people, and I had never in my life been exposed to Muslims.”

For Samirah, Ramadan is meaningful in a myriad of ways.

“Ramadan is obviously about faith, but also it’s about family and food,” she said.

“My kids love Ramadan, for the fact that there are so many things that we eat in Ramadan that we don’t eat in the entire year. My son Zayn said to me the other day, ‘oh my gosh mum it’s Ramadan next week and I can’t wait for iftaar and all the yummy food’. He knows in Ramadan we all come together, our family will typically spend the first fast together and will break fast together.”

Ramadan is a time where “you make time for the people you love.”

“I can go the entire year without seeing friends, but I know that in Ramadan we will always see each other,” she said.

“In Ramadan, I’m part of a convert support group my friend started because there are a lot of people who aren’t as lucky as I am, and even though they’re married into Muslim families, those families aren’t very accepting.”

“A lot of converts feel really lonely in Ramadan, so this is why she started this program, so we can all come together,” she said.

“I think Ramadan teaches us a lot about ourselves. About our strengths and our weaknesses,” she said.

“That’s the most important message that comes with Ramadan. It’s about teaching you about yourself, your inner self, and it teaches you how strong you are. If there were other people, other non-Muslims that decided to fast, they’d see how strong they are too. It teaches you that you can be strong no matter what the situation, in any aspect of your life.”