Ramadan at Whitman: a lonely fast

Josh Goodman

On many days throughout the month of Ramadan, senior Neda Ansaari gets up before sunrise to eat and drink before her day starts.

“I’ll eat and make sure I drink lots of water, and then I pray and go to bed again because classes start a little later,” she said of her routine.

Such is the practice of members of Whitman’s small Muslim population during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which observing Muslims abstain from food, water and other indulgences during daylight hours.

Ramadan started on Friday, Aug. 21 and ends this Saturday, Sept. 19 with the festival of Eid to celebrate the end of the fast. Many of Whitman’s Muslims, however, find it hard to observe Ramadan in a community where few people are fasting.

“In Whitman it gets harder to observe it everyday,” said junior Maherin Ahmed, who observes Ramadan some days but not others. “At home… everyone gets together. Ifdar [breaking of the fast at sunset] is festive. Here… I feel like I’m the only one fasting.”

Extracurricular activities also pose a problem for Ahmed.

“I cannot run or go exercising when I’m fasting,” she said. She also found activities and events involving food to be hard.

For Ansaari, not being able to drink water poses a challenge, especially in hot weather.

“I drink a lot during classes and stuff,” she said of her normal habits. “That makes it kind of hard to focus in class. These days it has been a little too hot, so that can make it hard.”

Meanwhile, junior Laura Evilsizer, who considers herself “open-minded” rather than an adherent to any particular religion, participates in a Ramadan fast on the weekends.

“Freshman year I tried to do the full fast during the school day and I couldn’t really focus in class or do homework,” she said. “So part of the reason I decided to do the full fast only on the weekend was because of this. Especially if you eat at the dining halls, they’re not open that early and they’re not open that late.”

Evilsizer, a religion minor, participates because of the perspective it brings her.

“I’ve grown up in a family that I’ve had food to eat on the dinner table every night,” she said. “It gives me kind of a window to people who don’t have regular meals. I think it makes me a better person if I think of these issues.”

Support for Muslim students observing Ramadan can be limited.

Elyse Semerdjian, faculty adviser to the Muslim Students Association (MSA), formed last spring, is unsure of how many students are fasting, but knows the number is small.

“I am not sure who is fasting on this campus,” she said. “We have a very small Muslim population and it cannot be easy fasting alone.”

It can be quite challenging to observe this period of holy days in a community where many don’t even know that it is happening,” said Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life Adam Kirtley. “Many Muslim students have to make adjustments and figure out how to live out their faith in this new, often unaware community.”

To help to build this small community, Kirtley and the MSA are hosting a dinner for Eid.

“My hope is that there will be strong attendance and that we can continue to build a supportive community for Muslim students,” he said.

One of the challenges in building a strong Muslim community on campus is the lack of availability of information on who is Muslim.

“For years I have been trying to find the Muslim population,” Semerdjian said. “I hope that now [that] we have a student organization on campus that Admissions will provide us with that information, but there are issues of student privacy involved.”

Still, Semerdjian is hopeful that Whitman’s Muslim community can thrive.

“It is surely isolating and contrary to practice to [observe Ramadan] completely alone and in a vacuum,” she said. “I hope that the founding of MSA at Whitman College can help by giving students a place to go and find the community once they get here.”