Everyone around me seemed to be irrationally angry. I felt my neck tighten – a defensive reaction – but tried to stay calm and think logically. Why is everyone freaking out because my daughters, who are Muslim, are fasting for Ramadan?
This is not the first time we’ve been in the United States during Ramadan. And it’s not the first time that people we know get concerned and even embarrassed that we fast (e.g., “how can you come to the party if you aren’t going to eat?”). But it is the first time I’ve had an organized children’s program threaten to kick my daughters out if they refused water during the sunlit hours.
They do have a point: It’s terribly hot. The girls are engaged in extensive physical activity. If they don’t drink, they could get dehydrated. They could get headaches, feel tired, even faint.
My daughters don’t agree: “It’s our religion. No one else has the right to tell us if we can follow our religion or not.” True, I tell them, but the children’s program isn’t saying they can’t fast. They are saying the girls can’t participate in the program’s physical activities if they are fasting.
From a strictly legal perspective, I see two sides. On the one hand, the program doesn’t want liability for any short- or long-term harm caused to them by not drinking during physical activity. That’s understandable. But on the other hand, they aren’t forcing other children to drink. They offer liquids and encourage drinking, but they don’t watch the children, measure their intake, and pull them out of activities if they don’t drink a predetermined minimum amount. How can they enforce their “must drink” policy (never before articulated) only on my children, the only Muslims in the program?
But the legal perspective isn’t the interesting one to me. The interesting (and painful) question concerns mothering. Every single reaction to my daughters’ fasting implied that a good mother would not allow her children to fast, and especially not when they are at camp during a hot summer.
Am I a bad mother?
On a normal summer day, I do require my children to drink lots. I mandate massive amounts of sunscreen. And I’m known on more than one continent as the “bedtime police” because I’m so inflexible about getting enough sleep. So why am I lax about eating and drinking during Ramadan? It’s not because I’m a blind follower of religion. There are lots of aspects of Islam and all organized religions that I don’t accept and would have difficulty tolerating. Believe me, I’m not the type to accept anything just because it’s written in a book.
I support my daughters’ observance of Ramadan because I believe it has value. I realize it even more now as I contemplate all the criticism I’m getting. It seems that many people in the US take things for granted, for example, that people are entitled to be comfortable even when others around them aren’t and that personal freedom is more important that collective obligation.
How can I explain this to a person who has never fasted for Ramadan, Lent, Yom Kippur, or any other voluntary reason? How can I put into words that on the other side of the pain in your stomach that moves to your head and makes your knees weak is a state of deep calm in which you realize that physical comfort enables certain kinds of understanding but denies other kinds of understanding? How can I help them understand that when you’re fasting, and nearly everyone around you is fasting, there is a profound sense of togetherness that you can’t reach when daily disparities between the well-fed and the hungry define everything else? And how can I convince them that after the first few, hard days, you begin to appreciate how strong you are in ways you never knew?
So I take a deep breath and say to my critics: “There are one billion Muslims in the world.” Most of them fast for Ramadan and they go on living.”
“They don’t do hard, physical activity all day in the heat,” they answer back.
“Some of them do. Some Muslims are farmers and construction workers and traffic cops.”
“But they don’t work as hard as Americans!”
Ouch. That hurt, though I can see some truth in it. People do slow down a lot during Ramadan. They do reschedule their days to sleep more and stay out of the heat. So I wonder why the camp can’t just let my kids fast, but let them take it a bit easier when they need to?
The critics: “In California, you’d get fired if you didn’t drink water at work.”
“What? You mean employers can fire Muslims for fasting?”
“The employer will get fined if workers health is at risk.”
(I am getting angry.) “Really? Then have they banned fast food, which is a known risk to health? Smoking? Stress?
Them: “I would NEVER allow my child to play even one soccer game without drinking.”
Ouch again. They are saying plainly that I am a bad mother. Does that mean that something like one half billion Muslims are “bad parents” because they respect the obligation to fast for Ramadan and consider it normal for their children to fast? Would I be a better mother if I pulled my girls out of a valuable camp experience so they could sleep all day?
For Muslims, fasting during Ramadan is an obligation, not a choice, but I don’t force my children to fast. They choose to fast, and I believe they are mature enough to make that decision. Even my youngest daughter, only 8 years old, often chooses to fast half the day and sometimes the whole day. By letting her decide, she learns the limitations of her own body, and she reaps the benefit of making her own decisions. Like the youngest, the older two have found there were days when they couldn’t fast, and they “made up” those fast days later in the year. Islam accounts for the fact that people get sick, travel, etc.
As my physician, who is also a sheikh, says: “Islam isn’t trying to harm you.”
Faithful people believe that God protects those who are fasting. Even people who don’t believe in God must be able to see how faithful people are strengthened by their faith.
As I write this, I have just served my girls their “suhur” meal (the meal before the sunrise, before the day’s fast starts) and I made them drink lots and lots of water. Later, I will send them to the program and they will decide if they can fast today or not. I will speak to my daughters at noon and again in the late afternoon to see how they are feeling. I will speak with the program’s staff to see if there are any behavioral alarm signals that warrant my intervention.
Most importantly, I will continue to talk to the girls about their right to practice their faith the way they choose to (based on informed and thoughtful consideration of various perspectives) and to not blindly follow what others believe is right for them– not religious officials and not camp officials either.