Fostering a Culture of Care During (and After) Ramadan
By Ameera Ali
Another year, another Ramadan! It is that time once again where Muslims across the world embrace a journey of daily fasting from dawn to dusk, for approximately one month. This year, Ramadan occurs from March 23 until April 20 (the precise end date may vary based on the lunar calendar). In addition to fasting, Ramadan is also a time when Muslims diligently observe prayer, charity, and staying connected to their communities. This is a sacred time where many Muslims are practicing self-control, enhancing their empathy towards others, and embracing a journey of spiritual growth. For more on the basics of Ramadan, please feel free to refer to the following Ramadan Information Sheet or the Beginner’s Guide to Fasting in Islam.
With the extensive cultural and religious diversity within the York community, this means that many of our own students, faculty members, and staff will be observing Ramadan. This blogpost will briefly touch on a few ways that we can foster a culture of care for our students, faculty, and staff during and following Ramadan.
Muslims who fast throughout Ramadan will often wake up before dawn to have a meal (suhoor) to begin their fast. For many, this means waking up much earlier than usual, which can certainly take a toll on one’s energy levels as the month progresses. In addition to the shift to one’s sleep-and-wake schedule, the act of fasting itself can be physically taxing. Remember, when fasting, an individual is not permitted to eat or drink anything at all – and no, not even water! As such, students may be more fatigued, especially during classes early in the day or closer to the evening. If you notice that a student seems more tired, distracted, or appears to be struggling to complete course tasks, please check-in with them to inquire what supports they may need. Students may need a bit of grace during this time, and extension deadlines, diverse options for class engagement, and more time in advance to work on assignments will likely be greatly appreciated. Strategies in accordance with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can immensely help with this. UDL implementation is also beneficial to all students and can support various access needs.
This year, Ramadan will coincide with the end of the Winter semester as well as the Winter examination period. If you are hosting a class or exam that coincides with sunset time, please ensure that students are permitted to break their fast during this time. Students will not necessarily need to have a full meal to break the fast at this time but will need a moment to have a small snack and a quick drink to sustain them until they can eat something more substantial. Some students may also want to step away for a moment to pray after breaking their fast. Please ensure that there is an appropriate space (somewhere relatively quiet and somewhat secluded) for them to do so. If an appropriate place is not available, please refer your students to the Scott Religious Centre. The University of Calgary has developed a very helpful resource on studying and writing exams during Ramadan, that you may wish to share with students during this time. The university Winter exam period will also coincide with the culminating celebratory holiday at the end of Ramadan, which is called Eid ul Fitr. This is an important day where many Muslims attend Eid prayers, spend time with their families and communities, and celebrate their achievements gained throughout Ramadan. It is highly encouraged to avoid scheduling examinations on the day(s) of Eid ul Fitr, when possible. If an examination must be scheduled during this holiday, please invite students to request alternative arrangements if needed. Since students may not have an official accommodation letter for such a request, this would be considered an extenuating circumstance and should be treated as such in order to equitably accommodate students’ religious needs. Since Muslims follow the lunar calendar to determine dates for the start and end of Ramadan, the official date for Eid ul Fitr is sometimes not determined until the night before.
As previously noted, Ramadan is also a time for reflection, rebalance, spiritual growth, and communal connection. Students have varying levels of access to community; some with extensive networks, and others with minimal connections (for example, students new to the country). Mentioning the Muslim Student Association to your students is a great way to foster a sense of belonging and makes it easier for students to connect with one another on campus. This association organizes Ramadan iftars (dinners for after daily fasts) that can help to support solidarity and community for students.
Supporting Faculty and Staff Colleagues
Our students are not the only ones on campus who observe Ramadan. Many faculty and staff members alike are also fasting at this time. Many of the above points on checking-in and being mindful of access needs at this time are also relevant for our faculty and staff, as many are also balancing care work and life responsibilities during this time. Managing work as usual while fasting may be quite easy for some, however for others it can be quite challenging. Creating a culture of care with our colleagues at this time can go a long way.
Additionally, although self-control and patience are integral parts of the fasting experience, it is a caring gesture to be mindful of those fasting when planning an event that will involve food. For example, faculty and staff are often asked to participate in team lunches and department meetings that include refreshments and catering. While these are certainly not off limits for those fasting, these spaces can create uncomfortable moments for them at times (for example, if they are offered food repeatedly, are asked why they are not eating, or are relegated to an isolated area while others are eating). To be clear, many of those who fast will have no issue being around others who are eating while they are fasting (after all, self-control and patience are objectives of the fasting experience, as mentioned), but it is about how these events are organized that can make all the difference in terms of how we respect our fasting colleagues.
It is also important to remember that not all Muslims fast during Ramadan. There are many reasons why people may not be able to fast, some of which include pregnancy, age, illness, and health-related factors. As such, try not to make assumptions about Muslim students or colleagues fasting; and if you notice that they are not, please avoid probing. Asking questions about Ramadan and fasting in general is welcome (and encouraged!), however if the questions invade one’s personal privacy, this can be uncomfortable.
A Quick Note on Support Beyond Ramadan
Finally, we may think that once Ramadan is over, many of these considerations will no longer be necessary. This is certainly not the case. Ramadan teaches us compassion, empathy, and the need to be mindful of the hardships and injustices that others go through on an everyday basis. For example, many of our students have demanding jobs and responsibilities that may regularly impact their sleep schedules and the energy reserves they bring to class. Also, coming to class hungry and not having regular access to food is unfortunately a reality for many of our students. Please remember to familiarize all students with York’s Food Support Centre at the beginning of the term and remind them of this service throughout the semester as food insecurity can occur at any given time.
Additionally, the general caring practices that we develop towards Muslim students and colleagues throughout Ramadan (for example: checking-in if we notice they are fatigued, expressing an openness to supporting access needs, being mindful of the way we organize events that involve food, being conscientious about what religious/cultural/spiritual observances are occurring when we are scheduling course requirements and events, and providing breaks for prayer, meditation, and self-care) can be practiced well beyond Ramadan, and towards all students, faculty, and staff. These practices are just some of the ways we can create more caring and equitable spaces for all students and colleagues at any given time.
Despite the challenges that may be faced during Ramadan, this is a beautiful time where gratitude, empathy, and common humanity are embraced. Sometimes the most meaningful thing we can do during this time is to simply wish our students and colleagues a peaceful Ramadan (saying ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ or ‘Ramadan Kareem’ are great ways of doing this). On this note, Ramadan Kareem to those observing! We, at the Teaching Commons, wish you a very blessed month and wish everyone a smooth remainder to the term!
References and Resources
Eid ul Fitr 2023: Meaning, History, Significance, and Facts: https://zamzam.com/blog/eid-ul-fitr/
How to Support Muslim Students Throughout Ramadan: https://inside.tru.ca/2023/02/27/how-to-support-muslim-students-throughout-ramadan/
Ramadan Information Sheet: https://ing.org/resources/for-all-groups/calendar-of-important-islamic-dates/ramadan-information-sheet/
Studying and Writing Exams During Ramadan (for students): https://ucalgary.ca/news/studying-and-writing-exams-during-ramadan
The Beginner’s Guide to Fasting in Islam: https://www.mymasjid.ca/beginners-guide-fasting-islam/
UDL in Higher Education: http://udloncampus.cast.org/page/udl_landing
Valid Exemptions for Not Fasting in Ramadan: https://www.zakat.org/valid-exemptions-for-not-fasting-ramadan
York University Food Support Centre: http://www.yfs.ca/fsc
York University Scott Religious Centre: Scott Religious Centre
York University Muslim Student Association: https://yorku.campuslabs.ca/engage/organization/yorkmsa
About the Author
Dr. Ameera Ali is an Educational Developer (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) in the Teaching Commons at York University. As her title indicates, her portfolio includes pedagogies of equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in higher education. Her specific areas of interest encompass inclusive pedagogies, anti-oppressive pedagogies, culturally-relevant teaching, well-being and belonging, trauma and learning, and pedagogies of care/kindness/compassion.