On 10 April, just days ahead of the commencement of Ramadan, I wrote this piece calling upon world leaders who are in the business of sending out well-meaning messages each year to the Muslim community at the beginning of Ramadan to implore Muslims to desist from enforcing compulsory fasting.
The reason for that piece is more nuanced than just the need to respect human rights, even if the need to respect human rights was a very essential part of that reason.
Just a handful of days into the holy Month, on 15 April, BBC Hausa reported the arrest and ongoing investigation of 11 young persons for ‘not fasting’ by the illegal Islamic police (Hisbah.) The illegally arrested persons include 3 men and 8 women who were allegedly caught eating in broad daylight, confirming that they are not fasting.
The 29-30 days fasting in the month of Ramadan is part of the 5 pillars of Islam that are essential to the completion of one’s faith. Partaking in them is compulsory for healthy adult Muslims, an exception is however made for the elderly who are unable to endure the over 12 hour long dry fast, the infirmed, travelers and menstruating women.
That the exception exists should be enough reason to not go on a public humiliation rampage because any adult whether perceived or confirmed to not be fasting, deserves the grace of the assumption that they are not fasting because of any of the above exceptions – bar old age.
To put the nuance in this subject matter into perspective, we spoke to 3 Muslims who have had a run in with this culture of humiliation and public rebuke in an attempt to force compliance with a religious injunction that was ahead of its time enough to make room for a wide range of possibilities.
Outhman* (M, 35)
“I stopped fasting fully 2 years ago, and stopped praying 6 months ago after I moved to Abuja for work. Part of it was anger, but I had also given up on Allah by 2018 because of the injustice of what happened to me that year.
“I have had chronic ulcer for years and even when I’m not fasting I’m only able to manage it with intermittent eating and a cocktail of medication. When Ramadan comes I make sure to plan my days around my eating time and my medication around the same time too. Then Ramadan 2018 happened and everything went to hell.
“I was doing my clearance in school at the time, my time was not mine because I was at the mercy of lecturers and professor’s secretaries, I did the best I could and took bathroom breaks to eat and take my medication, but then my snack-size meals finished by 1pm.
“I kept it together until I finished around 4pm and I knew I had to get something to eat quickly or I would suffer later that evening so I decided to stop by a shop and get something to eat and take my medication. It seemed like a good plan.
“I managed to find a shop almost halfway to my house and stopped to get yoghurt. I explained to the shop owner even as I opened the bottle and took several gulps, it didn’t even occur to me to read his face or his demeanor, seconds later two uniformed Hisbah guys were on me. I explained again and they said they would see my medication first, meanwhile they had herded me out of the shop.
“People love a spectacle, Kano people are no exception. By the time I showed them my medication there was a small circle of cheering kids around us chanting “Gandai.” A derogatory term for a person who isn’t fasting for any of the permissible reasons.
“They let me off with a warning to keep it private, but how could I when it was an emergency? I walked away on jellied legs, deeply humiliated and angry at a God who will make me too sick to fast, yet allow people who claim to be defending his religion humiliate me for a reason I can’t help. It was downhill from there.
“We don’t see eye to eye with Allah anymore and now I don’t care one bit about Ramadan or whatever else he has ordained.”
Ayeesha* (26, F)
“I have known my whole life that a woman on her period is Islamically exempt from fasting, but what I didn’t learn until later in life is how to rid myself of period shame.
“That feeling that period is something to hide from the world? It was everywhere growing up, but it was especially palpable during Ramadan. My mother used to caution me against letting on in anyway what I wasn’t fasting because I’m menstruating from the moment I had my first period. I don’t remember exactly what she said but it was in the line of, “It is bad enough that you aren’t fasting, worse still that you aren’t fasting because you’re bleeding!”
“I carried that shame for a very long time and will sometimes go the full day without eating even though I am not fasting. Until I made a friend in University who showed me another way of doing things – a way without shame.
“I accepted a life without period shame and it has been glorious, ‘The Incident’ notwithstanding.
“My friend and I call it ‘The Incident’ to minimize the trauma. It is important to mention here that my friend is a guy, and that to begin with is a strike against me as a young, unmarried Muslim woman. Then we were arrested in a joint in the Sabon Gari area of Kano in the middle of the day having lunch. My friend’s reason for not fasting was that he had missed Sahur – the breakfast meal taken by all Muslims intent on fasting that are able to wake up before dawn, and he couldn’t fast that way or he could faint. I understood that, but the Hisbah guys who stormed the joint didn’t.
“Our parents were involved and they eventually let us go, but I was needlessly traumatized as was my friend. I think about that every time Ramadan comes around and I’m newly enraged.
“If it is Allah I worship, and that is my deeply held belief, why am I having to negotiate my piety with these people most of whose understanding of Islam is poor at best?”
Bello* (25, M)
“It is second-hand trauma and a slow and painful loss of faith that made me stop fasting altogether. I am a 3rd child with two older sisters I was very close to. I could see how they shrunk themselves trying to hide the fact that they weren’t fasting, how shamed they looked if I found them eating in the middle of the day because they couldn’t fast while menstruating. I played my part in taunting them, to be fair I was only 12 so I was young and stupid.
“Years later after learning enough about all the ways period shaming traumatizes women and girls I imagined myself in my sisters’ shoes and grieve that I did, even young and stupid. I also got angry, that God will create women in a way that menstruation is a necessary part of their lives, then create exclusionary rules around this natural thing that opens the door for them to be potentially shamed for it. I began to see a lot more thereafter, and it was a slippery slope of loss of faith from there.
“The first time I didn’t fast I told myself I was protesting this injustice. I didn’t fast for only 7 of the 29 days in solidarity with menstruating Muslim women around the world. It felt good. So the next year I did it again, and last year I didn’t fast altogether.
“I am of the firm belief that everyone should be allowed to approach religion as they see fit, otherwise we will just end up with people living unhappy lives of pretending only to end up in hell for living hypocritically their whole lives. That is unfair.
“People deserve at least one go at a happy existence. And some may choose this world. I say we let them.”
*Names have been changed for anonymity.