By Kubra Fatima
I left my home in Dubai around seven years ago, to pursue the independent life, by experiencing the much-talked about ‘college life in India’.
With this, came new found freedom. As someone born into a conservative Shia Muslim family, I was taught to pray, attend religious gatherings and follow the teachings of the Prophet and his family even before I could understand what faith was. An important part of this was fasting during the month of Ramadan, the 9th month in the Islamic calendar.
It’s a pretty simple concept actually, in theory that is — from sunrise to sunset, you abstain from consuming any solid or liquid substance (And yes, that means you can’t swallow toothpaste as well. You just spit it out). You’re supposed to maintain a humble and pious lifestyle during Ramadan. Which means no music or other entertainment, no swearing (oh, the horror!), no lying, and you need to pray five times a day, read the Quran, not shop for anything other than necessities and, well, I could go on.
Now, it’s simple enough when you’re a gullible child and are raised in a similar environment.
Ah, those were the days. As kids, raised in an Islamic country like Dubai, it was part of a status symbol to fast. Muslim kids who didn’t, were judged severely (peer pressure works in a funny way in Islamic countries). The excitement that built up over the course of the day as the time for iftar approached was huge — juicy dates, delicious aloo samosas, fresh fruit juices, chana, dahi vada and more was part of the standard menu.
And then, (unfortunately for my parents), I grew up.
With my new found freedom, I learnt to question the system, logic, cause/effect and more regarding not just religious practices, but religion on the whole. I stopped praying, fasting and practicing religion, finding it simply a tool that suppressed free will. The more I read and studied, spoke to people and more importantly, learnt to use my mind, the more I grew frustrated with and tired of religious ideologies and practices. And one of the things I gave up was fasting for Ramadan. Countless debates, discussions and even arguments with my parents bore no fruit, where they tried every tactic in the book; coaxing me until a point where they tried to scare me back into it. I’ve heard it all – from “The only way to live a happy, fulfilled life is to follow the practices of the Prophet and ultimately earn jannat”, “Try reading this (particular) book, listen to a sermon with an open mind, your questions will automatically be satisfied”, to “this is why we shouldn’t have sent you outside, dimaag kharaab hogaya”, and “on the Day of Judgement, nobody can save you, not even yourself, if you don’t follow the religion”.
It’s simple enough to keep in touch with family when you’re living in another country, where the once-a-week Skype sessions revolve around predictable topics — gossip about people in the extended family, exchange of happenings in each other’s work/study areas, usual ranting about political situation in the country, and the standard ‘khana kyun nahi khaya’.
Away from home, the month of Ramadan was no different from the rest of the year. I neither prayed nor fasted, and lived life like a regular millennial — eating Maggi, drinking cheap beer, panicking about deadlines, debating politics, and of course, binge-watching anything I could get my hands on that featured a strong female lead. I heard the occasional “Roza kyun nahi rakh rahi ho”, “Namaz padh liya?” and “Kabhi to Khuda ko yaad kar liya karo”. The advantage was that in our fast-paced lives, neither party had the time to push back, nor did I have the interest.
Then the other shoe dropped. My parents called me back to Dubai for a two month break after I completed my Master’s.
Oh, how things had changed! Or maybe I had changed. I was back within the four walls of all the religious beliefs and practices I had dusted off and spent years disassociating from. From major things like praying five times a day and fasting, to small things like reciting certain duas before starting a chore, cutting nails on a particular day, or even performing a certain type of ghusl (ablution) after my period week. To top it off, the universe decided to play a fun game with me, because my visit home coincided with Ramadan. Perhaps you are wondering, ‘Why’s she complaining? She gets to eat excellent food and spend time at home’. Well, yeah, I do get that, but at what price?
See, I’ve reached a stage in my life where I refuse to adhere or conform to social, religious, and cultural norms. There are multiple problems from where I’m coming from, which can be broadly divided into two threads.
First, if I look at it from a contemporary world point of view. My parents raised me to be an educated, independent young woman, which came at a cost. I don’t believe in religion, or any religious practices. Here’s the thing though, I’m ready to accept that an individual relies on faith and has belief in a higher power, and takes part in certain practices as part of their religion. What I’m not ready to accept is when a person, community, or authority imposes said faith and practices on me. Of course, this is unacceptable to family. Because growing up in India, you’re born into a religion, you don’t get the option of choosing one or even taking a rain check on the entire concept altogether. There’s no question of not being part of religion, and nobody was going to let me say this out loud.
Now, here’s the second thing — I read a lot about religion, particularly the nitty gritties of one I grew up following and hearing about. Islam clearly says that the month of Ramadan is meant for simplicity, humility, and pious behaviour, thought, and action. When a large part of the day is supposed to be spent in prayer, it, instead, is spent in sleep, preparing for iftar, or bingeing on Netflix. In an increasingly commercialised and capitalistic world, Ramadan is rarely about humility or simplicity. Iftar parties are thrown in the most lavish manner, with a free flow of food and drinks, followed by dinner a few hours later. This extravagance comprises multiple dishes of meat, rice, vegetarian dishes, three kinds of juices, two types of dates and more. Families spend a significant portion of their income on these iftars, outfits that cost more than half a lakh for Eid, and spending endlessly and unnecessarily on the numerous sales that take place across a spectrum of stores.
So, here’s what I have a problem with — where’s the simplicity and humility? Where’s the difference between necessity and luxury? Are you actually following what the religion says and dedicating time towards being grateful to your God, or is this simply a month of added luxuries and hypocrisy? And whatever your answer, it’s not going to satisfy me, because if I flip the table and give you the same uncertain, rehearsed answers, it wouldn’t convince you either.
Indians, unfortunately, are experts in imposing belief, thought and behaviour on the younger generation. We can debate and argue all we want, but neither my parents are going to budge, nor am I. So, folks, what do we do when we’ve reached a clear impasse? I think I’ll just keep it to myself and enjoy the free, delicious food.
Kubra Fatima is known for having created the iconic (self-five) ‘have hands will write’ line. She’s currently looking for something to challenge her. Proud Arsenal fan, bring on the jokes. You can reach her at @kubra_f.