Ramadan with a handicap

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

As a disabled person, there is no shame in admitting that you can’t fast. I will not lie or hide it to satisfy people’s prejudices.

Monday 13 July 2015

Ramadan is the most communal time of year in the Islamic calendar. That is why, as you fast and feast, I ask you to spare a thought for the many who are not able to join you for health reasons and who have their faith questioned by people who are keen to offer advice and pass judgement in the name of “help”.

Although the Quran clearly states that people with health problem are exempt from fasting and can, instead, either make it up once they recover or, if it is a chronic condition, feed the needy in a practice known as fitra. But people don’t seem to be as understanding as the religion of Islam itself. People with disabilities, breastfeeding mothers, pregnant women and people of weak health are all made to feel guilty for not fasting, with comments ranging from, “Why don’t you try a bit harder?” to, “What do doctors know? God will give you all the necessary strength.” This makes people exempt from fasting feel guilty or gluttonous.

I have met many people who hide the fact, even from their families, that they can’t fast because they feel ashamed and embarrassed. One young woman, who requested not to be named, informed me how her severe arthritis and other health problem prevented her from fasting because she had to take medication to ease the chronic pain. But in front of her siblings and relatives she pretended to be fasting and relied on her mother to smuggle food and drink to her in secret. When I asked her why she resorts to such deception when she is exempt from fasting, she explained that her disability is invisible and her pain is internal, so people, and even family members, fail to understand that, physically, she can’t endure the long hours of fasting and to save herself from their judgemental gazes, she opts to pretend that she is fasting. “I feel guilty as it is for not fasting and missing out on the full experience of Ramadan without people either pitying me or thinking I am just being lazy,” she confessed.

Last year, I came across the story of Ahbid Choudry, 34, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of 13, which left him unable to walk and with a weakened immune system. Despite his severe condition, he decided to fast with the rest of his friends. “Doctors have told me not to but they’re the same doctors who told me I wouldn’t be here at 22, so their opinion doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “Fasting’s supposed to be a struggle and I enjoy the struggle.”

Choudry’s family were very concerned about his well-being, and deliberately chose not to wake him for the customary pre-dawn meal, known as suhoor, in the hope he would stop fasting. However, their son defied them just as he defied medical advice. Although Choudhry’s decision is admirable, I fear stories like his will encourage the public to question every disabled and health-vulnerable person’s decision not to fast.

But just because a person is visibly disabled and seems to be in a poor health, but they may actually be fitter and more capable of fasting than someone who seems, to the naked eye, healthy. For example,  people with cancer and diabetes are not easy to identify. That means that in some cases a disabled person who we think is not strong enough to fast can possibly do so if they are not on medication, whereas a seemingly healthy person may not be able to do so due to the medical treatment that they are receiving.

The UK has a population of 2.7 million Muslims, of whom an estimated 325,000 have diabetes, and it is precisely these people that are at higher risk of hypoglycaemia and dehydration during long fasts.

In an interview with the BBC two years ago, the Palestinian-American comedian and actress with cerebral palsy, Maysoon Zayid, who always chose to do Ramadan, admitted her defeat after 30 years. “One of my cerebral palsy symptoms is that I shake all the time, frustratingly, that shaking was finally getting the better of me,” she explained. “By noon, I no longer had the coordination and by the time I prematurely broke my fast at 20:00, I could barely breathe. I knew I had fasted my last.”

Having cerebral palsy means that, technically, Zayid is exempt but, like many disabled people who strive to be equal and participate in every aspect of life, the comedian challenged herself. Like Zayid, I defied my mother and doctor’s advice and fasted. When I did so, I was treated like a champ – my family were over the moon and I knew that, by fasting against the odds I had been born with, I was trying that much harder and would be rewarded for it. Plus, at the time, I was convinced that I was helping to change people’s perceptions of the disabled and challenging the usual stereotypes.

Now I realise that by not fasting and being open about it, I am actually doing more to challenge stereotypes and stigma,while raising awareness. There is no shame in admitting that physically you can’t fast and I will not lie or hide it. After all, it is God’s will that I can’t fast, so why would I defy it or lie about it. Sadly, many other disabled or ill people do feel shame and try to hide their sin which is not a sin. But they have no reason to do so, as the Quran instructs us not to take unnecessary risks.

Besides, there are so many other ways to make the most of Ramadan. The holy month is a time to get closer to your faith, devote more time to reading the Quran, praying, doing extra supplications and helping people in need. Doing charity work will not only help you stay healthy, it will also help someone who is genuinely suffering. In my view Ramadan is more than just about doing things for ourselves, such as fasting and praying. It should also be about what we do for others and how we ease their suffering and do not judge them.

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