After years watching her Muslim friends abstain from food and drink during the holy month of Ramadaan, SIOBHAN HIEBER, an atheist, decided to try it herself. She told Aaisha Dadi Patel how she fared. ’
I was at primary school with a lot of Muslims so I was exposed to Islam, and particularly to Ramadaan, early on. Even though my classmates seemed to hate fasting, I was jealous because I also wanted to do something special. After a while, I learnt that it was a way of showing appreciation for what you have.
By the time I got to high school, I started to think about how people were giving up all these comforts for something bigger, something they couldn’t even see. Just because I’m not religious doesn’t mean I’m not respectful; I admire people who have beliefs. In 2010, I decided to try it out.
I was fascinated by the whole concept of giving stuff up and waking up so early in the morning to eat. Food is one of my favourite things and I wanted to test myself to find out what it was like. I wondered, is it easier than I think it is? Do I think it’s so hard because people complain about it?
I used to sit next to a Muslim girl in class, and I thought: “If this girl can do it, it can’t be that hard.”
My friend thought I was joking. She said: “Okay, but since you’ve never done it before you can drink water, to help you manage.” And I said: “No, I’m going to do this properly, not have a ‘white girl fast’.”
So we started. I didn’t wake up to eat in the mornings, because I knew I would be less hungry and it would be less difficult if I just skipped that. Sometimes I would have cereal before bed, but mostly I would just have supper and that would be okay for me.
I got headaches. I was grumpy. But I managed it.
Besides the physical act of not eating, it’s a totally mental thing. I could have picked up food and drank water, but I’d never be able to face my friend and not be honest. I just wanted to experience a bit of what the people that I grew up with go through. In the end, you become thankful for it all because you realise there are people who live like this.
Because I was at school for most of the day, time would pass and it wasn’t so bad. And I kept all of them. I never cheated. I didn’t want to disappoint my friend or myself so I never even had a sip of water – until the last day, when like five minutes before sunset I just couldn’t handle it anymore, so I had a bowl of cereal and it was the best meal of my life.
The worst thing about it was that I didn’t really get to have Eid – I thought I had an idea of what had to be worked through, but there was no reward for it. My friend did tell me I could come to her house for Eid, but in the end it just ended up being a normal school day. There was no celebration.
The experience taught me a lot. After the fast I started to believe even more in the need for equality and for people to help others. I was ten times more thankful for even getting one meal at the end of the day. I’ve never believed in wasting or throwing things away, but the value of having even a little was made more clear to me. I wish everyone could go through this and just be humbled by the act.