Friday, July 26, 2013

In Their Own Words: The Ups and Downs of Fasting Abroad

This post was originally published in Aquila Style, 18 Jul 2013.
Whether by choice or compulsion, sometimes we spend Ramadan away from family. Four Singaporean Muslim women speak to Sya Taha on their experiences fasting overseas.

For most of my life, I have spent Ramadan in my native Singapore. Since my family members have differing schedules, Ramadan was one of the rare periods in the year where we were able to eat together at least once a day.

While many Singaporeans try to spend Ramadan and Eid together, some may have to fast in other countries due to work assignments. Nadia, 27, a young Chinese woman, has experienced fasting a few days each in Hong Kong and Sweden:
The wonderful thing about fasting overseas is the high level of energy and enthusiasm I feel throughout the day, despite the lack of food or drink. Somehow the experience of being in a foreign land assuages any hunger or thirst or lethargy I may otherwise feel.
The variety of women who observe Ramadan abroad mirrors the diverse experiences they have. Syah, 24, a young Malay woman who did her undergraduate degree in Canada, saw her experiences change over the four years she spent in Vancouver:
It was very different from the first year I was here until now. The first year, I was pretty much alone in the dorms. It was winter so the hours were shorter. The dorms had a cafeteria which had this system of giving food from the previous day as the morning meal for those who fasted. But for sahur, I would just eat some cereal since there wasn’t a kitchen. My roommate was really nice and would often eat her dinner when I broke fast so I wouldn’t have to eat alone.
Syah started out rather isolated from Vancouver’s Muslim community, its ethnic segregation making it hard for her to connect. Now engaged to marry a white Canadian Muslim man, she says the difficulties largely persist, despite having eased somewhat:
Now, I’m a bit more connected to the Muslim community for Ramadan since I’ve made Muslim friends. Even so, I still pretty much fast alone otherwise, just with my fiancĂ© because the Muslim community is still pretty rigid in terms of who they accept, [especially] us as an interracial couple. The Muslim community here in Vancouver is very divided along racial lines and there tends to be racial exclusivity in mosques, events, and so on.
On the other, young Malay women who have studied and lived in countries that have similar cultures and customs find a Muslim community that is welcoming. The presence of similar foods also makes for a more comforting Ramadan spent away from home.

Masaini, 29, did her undergraduate degree in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of the small nation of Brunei on the island of Borneo. With more than 60 percent of Brunei’s population being Muslim, she found comfort in the similar foods that were available during iftar such as air kathira (a sweet milk drink with coloured syrup and basil seeds), and rice porridge with meat. Despite the similar Malay culture, Masaini found something different in Brunei:
My fondest memory was the Islamic atmosphere and ambience. I could feel the strong spiritual aura that is not present in Singapore.

Likewise, Liyana, 28, who spent Ramadan in Kuala Lumpur while she studied there, enjoyed the widespread availability of air kathira, halal-certified food and the company of Muslim students from the Middle East and African countries like Eritrea:
My friends and I always enjoyed the luxury to choose where to break our fast. The mosque in our campus always surprised us with different types of food every single day. There would always be a pool of students, both local Malaysians and internationals, who swamped the mosque area in the evening, filling up the seats while waiting for the adzan to break their fast. That was when I got the chance to get to know other students whom I had not met before.
Liyana has fond memories of the generosity of student associations in her university who sponsored food for iftars, and warmheartedly recalled discovering a surprising benefactor behind one of these iftars:
My friends and I were on our way to the campus bazaar to buy food for iftar when we were stopped by an Arab man who encouraged us to break our fast at the campus canteen. He told us to sit down while he continued to prepare the food. I saw huge portions of food being served: rice with lamb, salads, desserts and drinks. We were also given a Qur’an each. Exhilarated, I asked the man if he knew who had sponsored this iftar. He told me it was the courtesy of an anonymous Palestinian man. I was stunned and touched at the same time, to think of how much most Palestinians had gone through but that this had never stopped them from radiating blessings in the lives of others. It was a great reminder to myself.
Despite not looking like a typical Muslim, especially with her Chinese appearance, Nadia also points to experiencing the kindness of strangers when fasting overseas:
One of the things I’ve noticed about being a foreigner in a strange land during the fasting month is how warm and welcoming local Muslims always are towards their fellow Muslims who are travelling and fasting away from home. At times I’d even receive offers to break the fast with these locals, indulge in their local cuisines and join in congregational salat with them in a show of shared solidarity for a fellow fasting Muslim. Such occasions are both memorable and precious. I’m very much aware that I may not have been privy to such offers or opportunities had it not been for my status as a Muslim, and the occasion of the fasting month.
Thanks to such overwhelmingly positive experiences, even after all these years, Liyana sometimes longs to spend Ramadan again in her former university, where she had the chance to befriend many women from all over the world:
One of those moments that I truly miss during Ramadan is getting to know women from various countries and cultures in my campus mosque. Most of the married women would bring their children to the mosque, and they would get request any sister in the mosque who was free to help take care of their children while they were doing the tarawih prayer. Every sister would help each other. It was a place for Muslim women to befriend other Muslim women – each had her own story on how she ended up in Malaysia. It was a wonderful gathering of women.

Overall, the experience of fasting overseas was a learning experience for these young Muslim women. Despite the cultural similarities or differences of the places they found themselves fasting, they were able to derive social and spiritual benefits from being with another of God’s many nations and tribes (49:13). While it can be comforting to spend Ramadan together with our family, spending it outside our native countries also brings an array of benefits.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Challenges of FWM (Flying While Muslim)

This post was originally published in Aquila Style, 20 Jul 2013.
Having to fast in the summer months for the second year in a row, I’m escaping to the tropics towards the end of this Ramadan. After about 20 days fasting for 19 hours each day in the Netherlands, I’ll be over the moon thinking about fast for a duration that I am most used to: 13 hours in Singapore.

I realise that this is a privilege on my part, to be able to fly halfway across the world. I’m not doing it just for the shorter hours, though; I’m also looking forward to being with my family during what I consider to be the most special celebration of my entire year. I have explained it to fellow Dutch people that Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr in combination is just like Christmas for them (perhaps a weak analogy seeing how Christmas and Easter celebrations have been secularised for most of the country, but it will have to do).

Today’s travel times are much shorter than what the 7th-century travellers mentioned in the Qur’an had to deal with. We can travel almost anywhere in the world in a matter of a few days. Some things, however, remain the same. Here are some things to consider if you are flying during Ramadan:

1. Fasting

Travellers are exempt from fasting during a journey (2:184-5), but some will want to anyway. Those whose work involves travel may decide to fast some days instead of missing out on the whole month.

For example, my friend works as an air stewardess and crosses time zones every three days. When Ramadan comes around, she eats a meal on board for sahur, and breaks her fast when the sun sets at the plane’s destination – wherever that might be, and however long her fast may be. At the end of the month, she tallies the total number of days and pays back a few days later in the year to make up 29 or 30 days.

2. Conserving energy

During Ramadan my energy levels are lower than usual, so I don’t want to deal with the extra hassle of luggage. I pack only the bare minimum and try to travel as light as possible. While I may have to carry on a heavy item like my laptop, I try to check in as much of my other belongings as possible.

As much as possible, I make use of online check-in (if available) so that I only have to drop off my luggage at the airport. This is often a separate and shorter line, or for some airlines a completely automatic process with the use of drop-off luggage machines. No more standing in long queues!

3. In-flight meals

As I booked my ticket for this upcoming journey, my husband realised that the flight was at 10pm – just after iftar time. I didn’t know if the airline would serve dinner so late at night, so I sent them a quick email. Happily, the airline responded that they would serve meals in time for iftar and sahur to any passenger that wanted it, throughout Ramadan.

If in doubt, ask in advance. Many airlines are happy to accommodate their passengers’ needs even though Ramadan may not be in their calendar. If there are no meals served, it is also possible to bring your own dates and meals onboard, and water is always available upon request.

4. Prayers

While this may not be a concern specific to Ramadan, it’s still helpful to know that many airports have a meditation or prayer room (specific or interfaith) in at least one of their terminals (even where you least expect it). While such rooms are expected and abundant in airports of Muslim-majority countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, I have been to prayer rooms in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, Madrid Barajas airport, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and, of course, Changi airport in Singapore.

I was once in Paris’ main airport, where there were separate Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayer rooms. When I peeked into the Muslim room, it was full of men in congregational prayer. Intimidated, I tiptoed over to the empty Jewish room. I opened the door tentatively and ready to explain myself, but there was no one there. It was also spacious and clean and I could do my prayer in total silence. Thank Allah!As for praying on the plane, while I have seen some passengers pray in the aisles in their best approximation of the direction of Mecca, I usually pray unobtrusively in my seat. By checking the ‘live’ flight path on your inflight entertainment screen (if available) or visualising the airplane’s general flight path, it is also possible to approximate the direction to Mecca from your seat.

The Qur’an also gives travellers the option to shorten their prayers when in unusual circumstances (4:101-3). The Shafi’i school of thought elaborates on how to do this through the use of qasar (shortening) and jama’ (combining) prayers. The Qur’an also gives the option of doing tayammum (dry ablution) in special circumstances (5:6). If water is available, one may also do only the obligatory ablution (5:6) – washing hands, face, arms, hairline, and feet, only once – to save on time and public water resources. Make the most out of these exemptions.

5. Security checks

I’ve been asked to remove my headscarf and cardigans at security checks. I’ve also had friends recount to me their unpleasant experiences being asked to remove their hijab or their dupatta. I have also been detained, without any explanation, in a room at Houston Airport, while my name (well, more probably my father’s name which contains ‘Muhammad’) was run through a database. I have also had immigration officers ask me unnecessary questions because of my name.

These experiences are indeed extremely unpleasant and I wish no one had to go through them. However, I try my best to get around the situation with excuses such as ‘I am bald and would rather not remove it’, ‘I’m not wearing anything else underneath’, or simply say ‘I cannot remove this’. Depending on the country I fly from, I have varying degrees of success when doing this!

I also try to get past security checks and get to the boarding area as soon as I can. This gives me some quiet moments to myself and also reassures me that if I ever fall asleep, someone will wake me up to make sure I board the plane!

Whether one travels for work or pleasure during Ramadan, I hope that it can be a pleasant experience for everyone. I believe that the reason God gives us exemptions while travelling is because it can indeed be difficult and God understands us best.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fatima Hamed Hossain: Politician or Jihadist?

This post first appeared on Muslimah Media Watch on 3 Jul 2013.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Critical Muslim Studies summer school in Granada, Spain. One of the speakers, Fatima Hamed Hossain, a lawyer, spoke to us about the social and political participation of Muslim women in Spain.
There are about one million Muslims who currently reside in Spain, with an estimated number of about 50,000 converts, and the rest being mostly of Moroccan, Syrian, Lebanese and South Asian origins. Immigration and growing rates of conversion of Spaniards from the late 1970s are the two biggest factors for the growth of Islam in Spain.
Fatima Hamed Hossain was born in Ceuta, and was trained as a lawyer. She currently practises as a civil and commercial mediator. In 2006 she joined the political party Democratic Union of Ceuta (UDCE) because she wanted to help marginalized groups, having grown up in a marginalized neighbourhood of Ceuta herself, and also because it was symbolically important:
“I have to say that for me it was a challenge, and I felt that despite all the difficulties and criticism it was necessary; it was about time to involve Muslim women in politics.”
She contends that the media creates a particular idea of Muslim women as being illiterate and submissive.
“My main motivation, in addition to fighting for social justice, is to break the prejudices and stereotypes that have been built on some Muslim women: we are not ignorant nor uneducated nor submissive. We rebel like any other woman against injustice and wearing the hijab does not prevent this. It shows my faith, my culture and my background that I’m very proud.”
She refutes the construction of Spanish liberal values as being superior as a recent phenomenon. This was because under Franco’s administration, married women needed their husband’s permission for all economic activities such as working or owning property. It was only in 1975 that this permiso marital (marital permission) was abolished.
Fatima was the first Muslim woman to be elected to the legal assembly of Ceuta in 2007.Her election became a question of national news – reported by the national newspaper El Pais. However, she is not the first Muslim woman with hijab to sit on a regional parliament: four years earlier, Salima Abdesalam was elected into the regional parliament of Melilla.
To conclude her short talk, she speculated that the newspaper El Pais had included a discreet message in reporting her new political position.
In an El Pais article after Fatima was sworn into the assembly, a photo of her is front and centre, with the accompanying headline below. “With the hijab and the constitution” implied that there was a need to reconcile her Spanishness with her own religiosity, given that she wore a visible marker of Islam, a religion that was different to the Catholicism associated with Spain.
The most telling message, according to Fatima, was the headline right next to her face, which said “Police warn of threat of second generation jihadists”. This clearly implied that she was such a threat, which – whether intentionally or unintentionally – aimed to bring down her political worth.
Despite such setbacks, Fatima states that her biggest task is to normalise the participation of Muslim women in social and political life in Ceuta, commenting, “If just one person changes their perception about Muslim women, my job is done.”

Boccia: Assisting precision

This post first appeared on on 22 Jun 2013.

Two years ago, I came back from a school trip to my sister announcing, “You can be my sports assistant? [Our domestic worker] Yuli cannot get a visa.”

I said yes, because it was almost impossible to find someone else who could leave with just two weeks’ notice. I had just graduated and had four months before leaving for further studies. I also had the privilege of a passport that allowed me to travel freely to Europe without being suspected of having links to terrorism, or intentions of overstaying for undocumented work. Before we went to the Boccia World Championships 2010 in Lisbon, Portugal, I had two weeks to learn the skills of being a boccia assistant.

The only catch: I had never seen my sister play boccia, and I had no clue about the game and what I would have to do.

I thought it would be easy; all I had to do was run around and pick up stray balls. Assemble and take apart her equipment. But what about her personal care: showering, getting dressed, preparing her food, packing her things? It had usually been our mother, and more recently our domestic worker who were almost wholly responsible for these tasks.

I only knew how to take out her books or pencil box when we were in Sunday school together, tap her EZ-link card when we took the bus or MRT together, or find wheel-chair friendly routes or entrances into cinemas.

Game of balls

Boccia is a target game played in mixed-gender singles or in teams (pairs or threes). The aim is to get the most number of your own blue or red balls closest to the white target ball, known as the jack. Each ball that is closer to the jack than the next closest ball of the opponent, at the end of four rounds, determines the number of points and thus the winner.

There are four categories for the game, with the first two reserved for athletes with cerebral palsy. The last two categories are reserved for athletes with a variety of conditions that result in limited control of their upper bodies, such as muscular dystrophy or spinal muscular atrophy. Before each competition, athletes are classified into one of the four categories based on their ability to throw or catch the hand-sized, soft, leather balls.
My sister falls into the third category called BC3, where athletes are allowed to use assistive devices such as ramps to roll the ball from various heights and angles, and head or mouth pointers to hold the ball. As an assistant, I was allowed to handle her ramp and balls during the game, although I had to strictly keep my back to the court, keep my eyes away from the play, ensure I was within the 2.5m x 1m playing box, and not talk or communicate to her during the game.

I had mixed feelings about waiting so long in between plays. On one hand, there was only so much I could see of the other games happening behind our court with a wheelchair in my way; on the other, continuous plays from the other team meant that our opponents were unable to get their ball any closer to the jack than my sister’s ball – she was winning! (At least, in that round.)

I amused myself by watching the game going on in the opposite court, looking at the linesman who penalises players whose wheels or devices are out of the box during their turn, or observing how the opponent sets up his devices and releases his ball.


While I had helped carry my sister to and from her chair, bed, and shower, it had always been with my mother or helper. I had never done it with anyone else, and I had certainly not been left to do everything else myself. When packing various clothes and personal items, I was confident that with my light-travel skills, we would be able to fit everything into one suitcase.

I was so wrong. There were so many items indispensable to her personal and psychological comfort as a para-athlete. Part of sports psychology called for reproducing her daily routine as much as possible in a new environment. This included the same types of soap, shampoo, deodorant, talcum powder and toothpaste; the same cereal drink for breakfast and daily vitamins (and sometimes the contraceptive pill to prevent the hassle of menstruation when traveling). There were bed liners and emergency diapers for the plane ride, in case we didn’t have enough time during the stopover for a toilet break (using the tiny plane toilet was impossible). We also packed lightweight cutlery that she could lift, and a pack of straws for drinks.

After a full day of being with her, I still had to get up once or twice during the night to turn her in bed (to prevent bedsores). Together our morning routine took almost two hours, and we had to factor in that time when getting up for breakfast and early practice. Exhausting!

Most of us go about our daily activities without even thinking about how we brush our teeth or put on our clothes. But for many para-athletes, they need assistance with every little part of their bodies’ actions – some even need constant towels because they cannot swallow their own saliva.


When we arrived at the competition hall, there was the business of unpacking the athletes’ ramps, which had been carefully disassembled and packed in bubble wrap. Weighing about five kilos, the ramp had to be stabilised with a five more kilos of hand weights during play. Her ramp had two additional pieces to make it longer, when needed to push the ball to almost nine metres away. These pieces were removed each time she took aim, and attached only during play.

My sister tells me to shift or turn the ramp left or right, forwards or backwards, “a little bit” or “a lot”. Then I pick up the ball she chooses and I place it along the ramp. She is the final one to touch the ball, and she releases it accordingly. Then, I adjust the ramp (turn it left and right to change its position from the last throw) and wait for her next instruction.

Competitions were always friendly, and I got to meet different kinds of athlete-assistant pairings: child-father, brother-sister, husband-wife (but no wife-husband yet), athlete-coach. For some countries with well-developed disability institutions: hired assistants paid per day. I was especially intrigued by a married couple who both had cerebral palsy. While the man had more mobility than the wife, both required a significant amount of help from a third party – reconceptualising the idea of marriage for me.


For those who do not personally know anyone with disabilities, the media is often the biggest influence. For example, television sitcoms that feature a mentally-challenged person usually feature an actor who imitates the spasms and movements similar to cerebral palsy. However, many people with this condition are highly functional and can pursue higher education, with the right facilities. Unfortunately, many people tend to assume that someone with physical disabilities also has mental ones.

I had never met anyone with cerebral palsy before helping out with boccia, and I was never aware of how much this condition could vary. For example, while the other athlete on our team could speak (and so often apologised if she hit us accidentally during her involuntary spasms), many others used customised sign language.

I communicated with one Colombian player for the first time on Facebook chat – he used discreet sign language with his coach, but he could type on a special keyboard (our communication barrier then shifted to my limited proficiency in Spanish). I also met a young man from the United States who drove his chair with the help of sensors around his headrest.


Since my first initiation into the world of boccia and caregiving, I’ve assisted my sister in two more international competitions in Belfast and Porto. It is heartwarming to see the same coaches, caregivers, and assistants with the same athletes, time after time.

For someone who uses her body and mind as creative expressions and doesn’t think twice about controlling locomotor movements, spending time with my sister as her assistant makes me realise that while I cannot live her life, I could very well do with understanding and remembering this.


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