Muslim students get mixed results when seeking support during Ramadan

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University calendar built around Christian festivals ikhsan sugiarto via unsplash

University needs clearer policies

Three months ago, during finals season for the winter 2021 semester, Zona Iftikhar – a psychology student at the University of Regina – began talking to some fellow psychology students about the challenges she and other Muslim students were facing while writing finals during Ramadan. Most people have heard the term “Ramadan,” but those who aren’t Muslim often have misconceptions around its timing, its significance, and the religious obligations involved. This becomes an issue when Muslim students seek much needed supports from professors or faculty and are brushed off due to not only a lack of understanding, but a lack of interest in understanding.

To remedy this, Iftikhar said, “It all starts with education, and I feel like people need to know the importance of Ramadan to us and what our obligations are, because there’s a lot of people who simply don’t know.” Ramadan is the ninth month in the lunar calendar followed by those in Islam, which, as Iftikhar explained, means that the timing of Ramadan shifts back roughly 10 days each year in the solar calendar that the University’s calendar is structured around. This year, Ramadan happened to fall during finals, which was a new experience for many students in the current undergraduate cohort.

Ramadan is a physical, mental, and spiritual reset that purifies one’s intentions. From sunrise to sunset, participating Muslims will fast from not only food and water, but also smoking, vaping, chewing gum, sex, and some will even forego music and television. The purpose of fasting to such a degree is “to get rid of these habits that you’ve accumulated over the past year that aren’t necessarily healthy for you,” Iftikhar explained.

This shift is not passive, and fasting helps support it by reminding participants “to count your own blessings because we’re all fortunate to have food on our tables and a house to live in,” Iftikhar said. “There’s a lot of people that aren’t (fortunate) so that’s the main purpose of Ramadan in Islam. To realize that there’s people out there who don’t have food on their tables, that don’t have a proper living or the necessities in life, so this really humbles us.”

While this period is often approached with excitement and anticipation, there are worries as well due to the physical stress one’s body is put through. For Iftikhar, “It’s hard because you’re not sleeping well, you’re not eating, and I know I personally cannot focus without any food. I get migraines, iron deficiencies, and I need my coffee or I feel like I can’t get through the day.” In addition to the lack of food often comes a lack of sleep as prayers can go as late as 1 a.m., yet can also start as early as 3 a.m., so some people only get an average of 3-4 hours of sleep per night during the month of Ramadan.

This change in routine also impacts ideal working conditions, and Iftikhar mentioned that many students took to working between 9 p.m.-3 a.m. while they didn’t have to fast. This worked well with the common take-home structure of finals last semester, but the scheduled finals – especially those from 7p.m.-10p.m. – do present an issue.

Amin Hassan, an engineering student at the U of R, said that that particular timing is a problem because it conflicts with when those who fast are supposed to break their fasts. “It’s required as part of the daily routine during Ramadan. You have the option to prepare yourself for the day by waking up early and eating and drinking before sunrise, but right when sunset hits and the azan goes off, that’s when you’re supposed to break your fast.” Participants are to adhere to this timing, which occurred roughly between 8p.m.-9p.m., but wasn’t possible for students taking exams that required Proctortrack. “The longer you extend it is usually unpreferable because you’ve already put yourself through the day fasting,” Hassan added. “It’s important for anybody to do so, not just for your health but also religiously.”

Hassan also mentioned the experience of a friend in engineering who asked their professor to accommodate this religious obligation, and was brushed off with ignorance. “He said ‘It’s not really my problem, and you guys should’ve planned ahead for this,’ so most had to wait until 10 p.m. to break their fast.” Fortunately, Hassan went on to say that responses of that sort are not the norm. “This is just one situation where a professor did this, but outside of that, most other professors are generally more lenient around Ramadan time.”

In the winter semester, Iftikhar asked sessional lecturer Rob Nestor in the Departments of Sociology and Social Studies, as well as Justice Studies and SUNTEP for an extension, and was met with understanding and empathy. “For me it was an easy decision,” Nestor noted in his statement. “In order to find success in the classroom I believe that students do not only have to put effort towards their academic studies, but that they also have to have a life outside of those studies that allows them to experience all they can while in university.” Nestor credits his approach to influence he received early on from local elders, which stressed using kindness in every situation. “It is a pretty simple thing to do and if it can help a student find success both in their academics and in life then all the better.”

Asking for support during religious holidays remains difficult due to the negative and harmful reactions of some, but Iftikhar mentioned a simple way professors can let students know that they will be respectful and understanding regarding religious obligations: say so in the syllabus. “It really becomes discouraging because you don’t know if you should ask or shouldn’t ask, but I guess if profs even put something in their syllabus like: ‘if you have any religious obligations, come see me,’ that puts me at ease that if I ever do need it, I can ask my prof easily and maybe they’ll understand.”

Nestor acknowledged that “Some might suggest that some students might read this and try and take advantage of situations. That may be the case for some, but I have found if students are treated with respect and you consider their request, they will hopefully show you the same respect when requesting an extension […] Overall, from what I have experienced in close to 25 years in the classroom, students are for the most part genuine when seeking an extension.” Other methods of support for Muslims students during Ramadan suggested by Iftikhar include a scheduled break they can use to break their fast and pray, or having snacks provided at in-person finals so that students can easily adhere to their religious obligations before returning to their academic obligations. “It’s not like we’re asking for a month of leniency,” Iftikhar mentioned with a laugh. “I know this is something that we need to do. It’s part of our religion so we don’t complain about it, but having a community that’s understanding or having people around you be understanding on the days where it’s rough, it’s just nice to know that if I need to ask, I’ll have that support.”

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