Supporting Muslim staff and students during Ramadan.
Ramadan begins sometime in mid-April. Yet, as discussions continue about the exact date and which calendar we follow, little to no literature exists on how we can support Muslim teachers and students in schools. The global pandemic has seen seismic shifts in our social interactions and Ramadan this year will be like no other. During this article, the aim is to use lived experience to shed light on the festival of Ramadan. I also wish to provide some practical steps to support those who are participating in the annual fasting tradition. This is a second Ramadan in lockdown, Eid in 2020 was ripped away from us at the last minute and of course there’s suspicion over the intentions of this government. Yet, a conversation where we can bridge a disconnect, that’s what’s the Imam ordered.
What is Ramadan?
One thing that needs to be made abundantly clear; Muslims are not a homogenous group. Therefore, applying a one-size-fits-all definition to Ramadan is problematic. There are many different schools of thought in Islam. All of which deserve time, respect, and their own place to be unpacked. Sensitivity is of paramount importance and even as a Muslim myself, I must be aware of this. My sincerest apologies if I make any mistakes in this article. All faults are my own and my own only as Islam is perfect. For the purpose of this piece, and to ensure sensitivity, I will be sourcing information and citing the Islamic charity Muslim Hands.
As the very core, Muslims across the globe practice the five pillars of Islam. These five pillars include:
- Shahadah – the reciting and profession of the Islamic faith.
- Salah – five daily prayers and performing ritual cleansing or wudu.
- Zakat – giving to charity based on one’s wealth to help those less fortunate. Donations during Ramadan often hold much greater reward for the donor.
- Sawm – the process of fasting during the month of Ramadan. There are exceptions as to who can take part in fasting, but it is expected if you are of good health and sound mind.
- Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca, which every able-bodied Muslim must do at least once in their lifetime.
Sawn, which is fasting during the month of Ramadan is defined as, “a month of fasting and abstaining from things considered to be impure for the mind and body. Those partaking in Ramadan abstain from food, drink and impure thoughts between the hours of sunrise (Fajr) and sunset, allowing them instead to focus on prayer and connecting with Allah (SWT).”
The act of fasting allows the individual to understand the pain and suffering of millions around the world who live their lives in poverty and famine, leaving the participant feeling more grounded and grateful for all that Allah (SWT) has given them. At the close of the month, Zakat donations during Ramadan are made and then Eid al-Fitr is celebrated with loved ones. Eid is a great time of feasting and celebration for Muslims, with gifts exchanged between loved ones.
(Muslim Hands, 2020)
When is Ramadan? At the moment, there is consensus that April 12th will mark the beginning of Ramadan. This may vary from school of thought to school of thought but the second week of April looks, well, halal!
A reflection: Personally, Ramadan is an opportunity to reflect and seek forgiveness from Allah (SWT). It is a chance to become closer to the message of Islam and develop greater self-awareness of the plight of others around the world. Whether this is in Yemen, Kashmir, Palestine, Sudan, Nigeria or wherever suppression exists, Ramadan, rather beautifully puts life into perspective. As a child and most British Pakistani Muslim people will tell you, there is no greater routine than the one we are blessed with during Ramadan. From the early starts and decisions on how to start the fast (Sehri), to seeing the incredible spread of foods for when your fast opens (Iftari), to Taraweeh prayers where you would meet and greet neighbours and members of the community who dress in the fanciest of garments, others who struggle after some over-indulgence at Iftari time! My siblings and I would joke about how Eid is the “only socially acceptable day to hug others.” The smells and aroma coming from the kitchen and euphoria and love coming from the community. Ramadan is a beautiful time of year. Words cannot do it any justice. Raising awareness is key and as a Muslims, we can open doors and be hospitable in holding these conversations.
Unconscious biases and uncomfortable truths
Although Ramadan does mean different things to different people and evokes differing feelings for different people, it is a very special month for Muslims. It is a wide consensus that every fit, able-bodied adolescent completes fasting during the month of Ramadan. It is a time of reflection and reconnection. This really is more than just avoiding food and drink. Yet, fasting is not easy. Working in a fast-paced environment, where you are in a continuous need to replenish your energy levels, it can be challenging. For our students also, many of whom have the exam season, SATs or simply a busy school day running side-by-side with Ramadan, it can be a challenge. From personal experience, I have struggled with fatigue, light-headedness and dehydration whilst teaching during Ramadan. As a student, doing cross-country in the 25 degrees Cambridgeshire sunshine, it was awful. At a time where we are beginning to hold meaningful conversations about anti-racism, inclusion, diversity, and equality, how can we support our Muslim colleagues and students during Ramadan?
Before we begin, there some common misinterpretations we do need to challenge. These are a collection of comments many Muslims teachers and students have heard and do need to be carefully and sensitively unpicked. Unconscious biases exist in almost every micro-interaction, but we challenge these, in collaboration. I would only like to focus on the two because the overtones of this piece are about proactive steps forwards.
Not even water?
I was sat in a staffroom and an overly eager member of staff offered me a coffee during Ramadan. I politely replied, “No, thank you. I am fasting.” Her reply, “Tea?” Albeit, very funny to begin with, I did explain that fasting does prohibit the consumption or food and water between sunrise and sunset. This member of staff repeatedly said, “What? Not even water?” Many Muslims will admire the curiosity, naivety and yes, they will pardon unconscious biases because that is what Islam teaches; to love all. However, we must be wary that some do find it unnerving and tiring to repeatedly correct others and almost justify their belief. Context is of great importance here. If you know that member of staff or that student well, then you can pitch questions and learn from them. We must be careful and not making our Muslim colleagues or students the epicentres of knowledge. We are all still learning, and religiosity, practice and belief can vastly vary from one person to another. Again, context is key. Getting to know your staff and students, striking rapports with them can break the ice before sensitive conversations take place.
Is it healthy?
My friend was repeatedly asked by his Head if fasting during Ramadan was healthy. This was very uncomfortable and when his Head asked him not to participate in Ramadan, he was visibly upset. Does fasting impact on your performance at work? What if he didn’t disclose that he was fasting, would that have been better or worse? Muslims have been fasting since the 7th Century and even today, health fads like intermitted fasting have their own intellectual veneer. Ramadan isn’t about food, we can cope with our brie and grape sandwiches! From a wellbeing point of view, you can where this comment is coming from but to then ask this member of staff and later tell parents that fasting could be a “distraction”, this simply seeps with insensitivity and Islamophobia. Fasting allows Muslims to reflect, cleanse their mind, body, and soul. Again, your context is key. Supporting your students and staff during Ramadan requires some soul searching. As an able-bodied adult like my friend, his personal beliefs and practices do should not be so frivolously challenged. There is still so much work to do hence when we are having this conversation.
How can we support Muslim staff and students?
These are not all-encompassing or exhaustive ways we can support Muslim students and staff. However, this begins a conversation that is necessary as we approach Ramadan.
As challenging and as uncomfortable as it may be, I believe if we want a society that is inclusive and accepting, people need to feel comfortable enough to disclose that they are participating in Ramadan. In the times we live in, even telling people that you are a Muslim can be difficult. I cannot tell you the number of times I have ignored the religion question or refused to state my religion on an application form. Sometimes we have loaded assumptions about what others think about us which can mar our interactions with them. However, as the movement towards greater appreciation and celebration of diversity slowly trickles into society, the responsibility is on us to disclose our religious practices that can potentially make some elements of our role more challenging. Once we have had this conversation, the onus then becomes on our employers to support us. Waiting around for people to notice or a token mention in a whole staff email, it doesn’t cut the jalebis! Often, acknowledgement is the precursor to understanding and acceptance.
Asking rather than assuming
When a festival like Ramadan comes along, there are common misconceptions, as well as scope for questions and curiosity. From personal experience, it can be both a blessing and a burden to be asked about your beliefs and constantly allow others to project their subjective views onto your faith. Most Muslims will be open, willing to take questions and rather you ask than make a misleading assumption. However, this needs to be done sensitively. Curiosity is admired, welcomed and vital. Yet, when Muslim staff are asked to lead an assembly on Ramadan or students are given a day off to celebrate Eid, this isn’t inclusion. Why ignore their faith until it enables you to tick a inclusivity box? Why have an assembly about Ramadan when, for example, Islamophobia remains unchallenged across your institution? Yes, inviting conversations about religious festivals and customs is important but your experts are not always your students and staff. Assuming they are spokespeople on all matters Islam, this tendency is the reason why there is so much division. We are at the mercy of a technological revolution. Information is available at an instant. There is no excuse not to be informed and the time you take out to develop an understanding of others, it will be reciprocated someday. Asking rather than assuming is a key way to support Muslim students and staff during Ramadan.
Making necessary adjustments
When you are fasting, the day naturally feels longer, and your energy levels are naturally lower. As inclusive hubs, schools must work collectively with their staff and students to create an ethos that empowers and gives a voice to everyone. During Ramadan, I have completed duties in the school canteen, been offered food and drink, asked to cover lessons in different parts of the school building and even compete in a sports day with my form class. If we are looking at teacher wellbeing and using the praxis of physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, what adjustments were made for me during Ramadan? I have a colleague who was asked to support practical Food Technology lessons during Ramadan and my nephew who is in sixth form has told me of the frustrations that his school prayer room being next to the loud Music room. Schools can make adjustments, not just during Ramadan but in how they welcome adults and young people from all walks of life. The number of schools I have visited that don’t even have adequate access for wheelchairs, it fills you with despair. We can make those adjustments, offer to do a duty for someone, avoid offering them food or drink and really change our perceptions and have meaningful interactions with others. This is a journey and one that can take together. The small, rather banal and nuanced adjustments we can make really can make a massive difference.
As a member of staff, you may begin to see Muslim teachers begin to wear headscarves or seek a place to pray. Before Ramadan, they may not have had the consciousness or courage to express an important element of their faith. This is often met with suspicion and apprehension but we got to understand the significance and weight of Ramadan. It’s an exceptionally special time to become closer to your faith. Allowing staff to pray, giving them a key to lock their door whilst they pray, acknowledging their needs. As a good friend told me “isn’t about moving mountains, it’s about raising consciousness.”
Also, we need to also accept that some students and staff may not observe fasting during Ramadan. Again, this needs to be addressed sensitively too. Some Muslim teachers may find it difficult to catch up with the latest teaching and learning fad or Tes article. This is an opportunity to become closer to our Lord. Society needs to understand this and we need to embrace this. Time and space really is everything. Schools need to reflect on inclusivity, empower their staff and make provisions available.
The holy festival of Ramadan dawns upon us again and provides us all with plenty of food for thought. If anything, I hope this article gives you an honest opportunity to reflect any for many, it will resonate very closely. Tackling and addressing unconscious biases takes learning and also unlearning, healing and also collaborating. Our Muslim colleagues and students need for us to be informed and inclusive. If you can, offer to do that duty, be curious but sensitive, seek to understand rather than pass judgement. We can all learn from one another. We all need to be part of this conversation. Everyone from our students, to TAs, to HR. Inclusive practices are not peripheral entities, they are a cultural change based upon mutual respect and understanding.
To everyone reading, Ramadan Kareem (may Ramadan be generous to you). Insha’Allah. Ameen. Again, my sincerest apologies for any mistakes I have made during the course of this writing. All mistakes are my own. I don’t know everything but I will contribute from my own experience and for some, that’s the only exposure they will have.
Thank you for reading.
And yes, not even water.
Happy Birthday, Dad. Ramadan has never felt the same since you left us. You are loved and missed. X