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I fasted for Ramadan after shunning the ritual for years, and it changed my mental health for good

Ruqayyah Eid Ramadan
I'd always considered Ramadan a compulsion, but never stopped to think of it as a choice and a privilege.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

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  • As a cultural Muslim, I shunned my Islamic background when I became estranged from my family.
  • I stopped fasting and buried my upbringing after two decades of being called terms like "half-caste," "ugly," "brown," and "P*ki" over my mixed, Pakistani, and Muslim roots.
  • This year, to try and reclaim some of what I had let go, I observed Ramadan at my parents' house.
  • Fasting and practicing mindfulness in Ramadan transformed my mental health and helped me realize I don't need to belong to one community to matter.
  • It also helped me open up, appreciate the little things, and work on my relationship with food.
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Having grown up surrounded by people who were mostly white and non-Muslim, I can see how others might view some of the practices of Islam and Ramadan as irrational, or even alien.

However, fasting for Ramadan for the first time in years has changed my mental health for good. 

Ramadan is a 28 or 29-day lunar month running up to Eid al-Fitr, one of the biggest Islamic festivals. For many, it entails focusing on self-betterment and helping others — but you're also supposed to abstain from food and water from dawn until dusk every day for a month.

From the outside, fasting might seem extreme — but my memories of Ramadan are some of the happiest I have.

My father was a lapsed Catholic before he reverted and married my mother so, though I was raised Muslim, my siblings and I had the best of both worlds.

With my dad's parents, I have fond memories of trick-or-treating at Halloween, painting eggs on Easter, and decorating Christmas cakes.

Ruqayyah
As I got older, my relationship with Islam changed.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

At home, Ramadan, Saḥūr (pre-dawn) breakfasts felt like midnight feasts. There were homemade advent-style calendars counting down the days to Eid, dinner parties for ʾIfṭār (dusk) meals, and show-and-tell days where my mom would bring in henna and craft supplies for Eid cards.

After spotting the new moon, we'd wake up to wrapped gifts, decorations, and lights. Both sides of my family, neighbors, friends, and classmates would turn up to the house in their best clothes for food, fireworks, and party games.

Eid and Ramadan brought everyone I loved together and were more exciting than my own birthday.

My ties with Islam began to take a toll on my mental health

As I grew up, family and friends dispersed, and the novelty of Ramadan and Eid wore off.

Throughout my younger years, being surrounded mostly by peers of irreligious or lapsed Christian backgrounds had never been a bad thing for me; I'd even been placed on a pedestal for my differences.

When I was eight, shortly after the September 11 attacks, I tried to join in with my usual crowd at recess, and it became evident I was being ignored. Bewildered, it turned out one girl's parents had forbidden her from playing with me because my family was Muslim.

This event set the tone for the two decades that followed. Terms like "Muslim," "half-caste," "ugly," "brown," and "P*ki" came to be thrown around interchangeably, and everything that had once set me apart in a positive way became a burden. 

High school, a predominantly white and non-Muslim space, saw me yearning for inclusion.

Eid Ramadan
My parents chose to raise me Muslim from a young age.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

It was incredibly isolating to have my mixed, Pakistani, and Muslim roots held up against a white (and often antireligious) backdrop. Conversely, I was also shunned for being overly liberal as a Muslim.

All of this took a toll on my wellbeing.

I got into trouble at school, experiencing disordered eating, wound up in problematic relationships, and suffered from body image issues colored by racism.

In my formative years, I was desperate to gain acceptance and tried to erase my background: it was easier than batting off stereotypes that often dipped into racism. 

I shunned wearing shalwar kameez, Pakistani clothing introduced to South Asia by Muslims. I anglicized my name. I avoided catching the sun to stop my "visibly Muslim" and Pakistani heritage seeping through. My behavior drew ire from my family, but I felt withdrawn and unenthusiastic when Ramadan came around.

Bonds with family members continued to erode, and I drifted apart from any sense of community. I lost friends and struggled to make new ones.

After trying to erase my upbringing, I ended up yearning for it

By my early twenties, I'd stopped observing Ramadan entirely. After my naani (maternal grandmother) died in 2015, I had become estranged from my family. I had no reason to fast and no one with whom to observe Ramadan: I discarded my Pakistani and Islamic heritage.

If I couldn't win and wouldn't be accepted as a "good Muslim," I decided I wouldn't be any sort of Muslim at all.

Ramadan
Denying my Muslim upbringing, regardless of my beliefs, was farcical.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

After a period of little contact with my family, however, I realized that denying my Muslim upbringing, regardless of my beliefs, wasn't the right thing to do.

By not acknowledging my background, I was missing out on so much.

This year, in an effort to try and reclaim some of what I had let go, I chose to join my family in observing Ramadan, staying at my parents' house.

I fasted, performed Salat (an Islamic meditative ritual performed five times a day), and practiced mindfulness. It didn't just transform my relationships with food and my body; it altered my sense of purpose and direction, and gave me ownership over my choices.

Fasting helped me break an unhealthy relationship with food

I used to think of many aspects of Ramadan as unnecessary, mindless rituals that just "weren't for me," particularly fasting.

When I chose to fast this year, though, it didn't just test my self-discipline; it transformed my relationship with eating.

For years I had become rigid in whatever I could control in my life, including my diet. Structure had become a safety net on which I was reliant.

Burfi cupcakes
I'd forgotten how much I enjoy making food and sharing it with others.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

Fasting forced me to let go of this need to be in control or follow a certain routine. It helped me moderate my approach to nutrition, and allowed me to just enjoy cooking and eating.

Though I had fewer meals, I ended up putting time and love into food, cooking with others, trying new things, sharing meals, and reconnecting with my heritage through family recipes.

Fasting won't help everyone. Many people I know simply can't fast — for some, fasting and doing your job safely are mutually exclusive. Health conditions like diabetes, eating disorders, or immunity problems can make fasting unsafe.

But I've been much more mindful of how I eat since Ramadan ended. 

I enjoyed my passions instead of fixating on achievement

Over the years, I'd come to derive self-worth from achievements — I felt I had to earn it.

As an amateur pole athlete, I was so worried about falling behind in fitness that I hadn't stopped to consider the fact I might have been overexercising before Ramadan: working out is fine while fasting, but my normal workouts were leaving me sore, drained, and lethargic.

I realized that in pushing my body to feel a sense of accomplishment, I'd been losing sleep and getting dehydrated well before Ramadan started.

I'd punished myself for not being strong or flexible enough or for not picking tricks up immediately. It dawned on me that, just by functioning while fasting, my body was doing an amazing job.

Though I love pole, fasting forced me to confront the fact that exclusively strength-based and high-impact exercise just wasn't good for my body or my mind. I'd become too fixated on achieving and had forgotten why I liked pole in the first place.

pole
I've often been unkind to my body where pole is concerned and pushed it too hard.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

Since Ramadan ended, I've continued to rest when I need to, and tried not to feel guilty about it.

Having felt genuine thirst, I've remembered to drink more and have even tried yoga, which I'd never thought I'd enjoy.

I've been more mindful of not overworking myself in other ways, too — I remember to step away from my screen more often and to stick my head out the front door to breathe in between meetings.

In many ways, fasting forcing me to conserve energy and cut back on pole training was a blessing in disguise: I thought I'd feel lost, but instead was able to indulge in so much I'd forgotten I loved.

I rediscovered a love for art and playing music and spent time baking with my sister. I messed around with henna, and read books — and all of it was just for the sheer enjoyment.

Fasting and Salat helped me find gratitude in small things — but they also allowed me to grieve

As a kid, I dreaded my mom asking me to join her for Salat, though it never took long.

Salat is a ritual performed at dawn, midday, evening, dusk, and night. It entails a few cycles of verses recited in Arabic coupled with set motions, and it's not exclusive to Ramadan; it's meant to be done through the year.

I can recite and have memorized parts of the Qurʾān, but never took the time to study classical Arabic. Reciting words I couldn't really understand felt like a boring, mindless chore. 

Tasbih
After performing Salat, I'll never dismiss rituals or meditation again.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

I decided to join my family for Salat this Ramadan, and it was such a calming escape. The verses are repetitive, but reciting them is a retreat from a noisy mind. It's melodic and meditative, especially at dawn or twilight when the birds are singing.

Knowing there are millions of people pausing at the same time and moving in unison is also a pretty powerful feeling. I doubt the intended purpose of Salat is to "zone out," but taking regular breaks to focus on movement and sound has been grounding.

It helped me to understand why people pause to meditate or do breathing exercises.

Fasting and stopping during the day also helped me consider things I normally take for granted — feeling alert, warm, and full in the day, having a roof over my head, the means to afford what I need, and a warm home.

Having time to reflect on what I have, I feel very fortunate to live in a place where I was neither forced to observe Ramadan nor was I banned from doing so.

Henna Ruqayyah
Fasting and Salat helped me find gratitude in small things.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

Fasting and performing Salat also brought back memories of my naani, since when I was younger I'd always participated in both alongside her.

I was able to mourn not just my grandmother, but everything our family and I lost when she died — we'd become scattered and had lost cohesion. The one final connection I had to Pakistan, which I have never visited myself, was gone, and I never really grieved.

Recalling what it was like to perform Salat alongside my naani helped me remember things about her that I'd forgotten.

grandparents
I grew up in a Muslim household but had the best of both worlds on both sides of my family.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

I find myself opening up to those I was fasting with

Until I felt curious enough to retry fasting this month, I didn't realize how isolated I'd become.

My choice to cut myself off from Muslim practices, including Ramadan, had led me to miss out on an accepting and supportive community, on friends, and on family.

As an adult, being with my family in Ramadan hasn't always been easy, or even possible, but being reunited with them this year, I was able to reminisce and make new memories, too.

Mayna Maami, Mum
Even just taking time to look back on happy memories with family members has been rewarding.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

It also allowed me to open up more about all the issues I've felt unable to confront for years.

Though well-meaning peers have lectured me on how it's backward, regressive, or extreme to fast when I'm "not even religious," for the most part, coworkers and non-Muslim friends have helped me feel reassured, too.

In fact, friends taking an interest and even poking fun at me for not eating has helped me to feel more included than I ever thought I could. Totally unprompted, many non-Muslim friends wished me "Ramadan Kareem" or "Eid Mubarak," and many even offered to fast alongside me.

I couldn't see friends or cousins for ʾIfṭār this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but I've made an effort to keep in touch with and open up to Muslim friends, old and new. It's helped me see there's room for me in many accepting groups of people.

Ramadan helped me stop dwelling on the past and worrying about the future

Losing privileges I take for granted helped me think about what really matters to me, and to stop worrying about how people will view my choices.

Rather than feeling anxious or hopeless about things that aren't in my control, Salat forced me to stop and enjoy the moments I had, and to focus on how I could make the best of bad situations rather than try to control them. 

It also made me pause to consider whether the things I've always claimed to be important to me, like spending time with family and friends or making travel plans, were being reflected in my day-to-day decisions.

Malaga Málaga
Losing privileges I take for granted helped me contemplate what really matters to me.
Ruqayyah Moynihan

For two decades, I consistently had reductive stereotypes thrust upon me — an angry Muslim, a zealot, a failed Muslim, an observant, or an oppressed one.

I felt that I was being denied a more nuanced cultural identity among Muslims and non-Muslims.

Some people still condemn Ramadan as unhealthy, then tout the benefits of intermittent fasting; others judge and dismiss the more contemplative aspects of Ramadan as ritualistic. Some say my fasts won't count as I'm not a "real" Muslim.

However, after fasting this year, I realize that I don't care whether I'm considered adherent, liberal, or devout enough to have earned a label — Muslim or non-Muslim. I don't want to speak on behalf of anyone and don't need to explain or justify everything I do.

I didn't fast or do Salat for anyone else; I chose it for myself. Learning to walk away from judgmental conversations helped me protect my mental health, and I've been fortunate to find friends I can trust, respect, and open up to.

I can't and won't ever entirely belong to one single community, but I now know that I don't need to in order to matter.

Read more:

How to work out and eat to maintain muscle and fitness while fasting during Ramadan

How to support your Muslim coworkers who are fasting during Ramadan

7 things you should avoid saying to a fasting coworker during Ramadan

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

SEE ALSO: How to support your Muslim coworkers who are fasting during Ramadan

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