BY LUBNA SHERIEFF
Exchange students, politicians, poets and converted mothers – Australian Muslims have no uniform face but one celebration unites them every year: Ramadan. With a myriad of experiences, today’s Muslims find ways to thread the practices of Ramadan through the demands of their everyday life and find meaning within them.
Jarri Heydar, a 23-year-old exchange student from Pakistan studying Law and Arts at UNSW, believes Ramadan has given him a form of resistance against the idea that being gay cannot exist in Islam.
“A lot of Muslims would tell you, and I accept that as well, that you cannot be gay and Muslim – the scripture says that you cannot be both at the same time,” he says.
He believes Ramadan is a good time for him to resist the idea that there is no space for LGBT people in Islam by allowing him to “charter [his] own course with religion.”
“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,” Heydar says.
While he misses the food from back home, he finds that his practices have not changed much, claiming his busy student life best allows him to deal with the fasting and praying demands of Ramadan.
“I can actually perform Ramadan in the way it was meant to be – not neglect my work, finish whatever I’m meant to, do what I’m here to do, do it to the fullest, and also remember who I am, and engage with that,” Heydar says.
Heydar says he misses cooking with his mother during Ramadan.
That loneliness changed when a Muslim chef who worked at his dining hall, Fig Tree Hall, volunteered to organise a Ramadan breakfast in 2016, believing each student deserved a good feast.
Heydar believes food brings people together, and loved how he could stay up with friends waiting for sahur (pre-dawn meal) and find more non-Muslims at the breakfast when he went down.
“I think the greatest conversations happen over food, and Ramadan is all about sharing our culture, our traditions. It’s just about love, about community.”
For Mehreen Faruqi, Greens Senator and Australia’s first Muslim woman to be elected into Parliament, Ramadan is the time she misses Pakistan the most.
In Pakistan, the working life was catered towards Ramadan with changed working hours to accommodate it, and without that here, it is different for her to practice it with the demands of parliament.
“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,” she says.
Faruqi says most people in parliament do not know she is fasting, but the question she gets the most is how she can survive without water and food for so long.
Within a couple of days, her mind and body gets used to it.
“It provides a sense of calmness because it is about spirituality and meditation, it is about getting your mind off bodily things like food, and concentrating on the bigger picture,” she says.
“And that works for me whether I’m in Pakistan or here.”
Faruqi says she tries to break her fast with her family whenever she can.
She believes being with others is the best part of Ramadan, holding a women’s iftar every year at NSW Parliament and inviting performers and members from the local community to celebrate.
Faruqi usually breaks the fast with a date and enjoys making samosas, as per family tradition.
“I love to cook, and I cook from every cuisine in the world, but during Ramadan I revert very quickly to Pakistani cuisine, because I think it’s nostalgia, and it reminds me of being at home with my mum and dad and family and cousins when I used to live there,” she says.
A 25-year-old lawyer, spoken word poet and co-founder of Bankstown Poetry Slam, Sara Mansour believes the unity she feels with the Muslim community is her favourite part of Ramadan.
“You’re kind of all struggling together…it’s really nice in a sense that you’re focusing, refocusing your energies and spending time with your families, friends, and also keeping in check with your spirituality,” she says.
Ramadan has become harder to practice now that she is working full-time as a lawyer.
Last year, she was working at a firm and found she could not go home to break her fast and instead had to do it at work, saying that was a “downer” on her spirit.
Mansour sent an email to the firm’s partner about her fasting requirements and never received a response.
“I just kind of took it as ‘oh, better just suck it up and do the work.’ I think, generally, people are okay when you speak to them face to face, and if I could go back and do things differently I would’ve gone and spoken to that person…and told them about how important it is to me,” she says.
As many of the attendees at the monthly Bankstown Poetry Slam are Muslim, Mansour has ensured the event caters to fasting schedules, pushing back to the event starting time to allow people to break their fast easily.
Mansour, who loves traditional Lebanese foods found that when she was younger, Ramadan was “more about getting hungry than it was about actually reconnecting with the spiritual side.”
“I really like the actual fasting, because when you become an adult you realise it’s not just about being hungry, it’s also about trying to change bad habits. And if you’re put in compromising or challenging situations, it’s about trying to make the best of them,” she says.
At the heart of Ramadan for Mansour, is a strong meaning about social justice and empathy.
“It’s not just about strengthening yourself and reconnecting with your spirituality, but it’s also about having that empathy for people around the world that are suffering.”
Samira Ahmed, 36, whose previous name was Rebecca before she converted to Islam and married her Muslim husband, is now the mother of two boys and loves celebrating Ramadan every year.
Growing up in a “typically Australian” family in Queensland, she told her parents in email that she had converted and they responded with “Okay, that’s lovely” but they have been accommodating towards her family’s needs whenever they visit.
She says her eight-year-old son, who was usually very fussy with food, told her last week how excited for Ramadan and “all the yummy food” because he knows that Ramadan is a time for family.
He has not properly begun fasting yet.
“I think he has fasted a couple of half days, and he’ll sneakily eat something and then he’ll be like “Oh woops, I forgot I was fasting,” and just continue eating for the rest of the day.”
For her twelve-year-old son, this will be the first Ramadan he fasts in full.
“It’s a bit of a struggle for him, and I don’t think they understand the importance of fasting and the seriousness of it, at that age. That’s why we cook all these wonderful foods, so that when they break their fast, it’s like a reward,” she says.
Ahmed tries to make Eid as special to her children as Christmas was for her growing up, and thinks she has succeeded.
A typical Ramadan for her family means dressing up in new clothes, decorating the house and cooking food they do not usually eat outside of Eid.
“We go around, we visit all our family, we visit all our friends. And you just eat copious amounts of food at everybody’s houses, and then you get home and your car is filled with wrapping paper from all the gifts that the kids have received,” she says.