The Catholic who Fasted for Five Days in Ramadan
By Kym Wilton, National Education Manager at the Islamic Museum of Australia
Eighteen months ago, I landed what has turned out to be a dream job. Having burnt out as a high-school teacher and leader, I needed to find something to rekindle my love of education. An opportunity presented itself here at the Islamic Museum of Australia (IMA), and serendipitously, I am now happier, healthier and passionately working in education again.
Over this time, there has been a lot to learn. I grew up fortunate enough to have been encouraged to learn about all faiths and cultures, and have worked in schools overseas where there were large numbers of Muslim students and staff to understand what Islam is at a superficial level. That said, when I started working for the IMA, I realised what I had known was barely scratching the surface. Luckily for me, I work with an incredible team of staff who are only too happy to share their faith and cultures with me.
Image: Kym (right) with IMA colleagues Wafa (left) and Natalie (middle) at the Bachar Houli Foundation 2022 iftar.
My desire to fast during Ramadan goes back to 2022.
I attended my first iftar and worked alongside colleagues who were fasting.
The hectic-ness of the start of Ramadan was reminiscent of the Christmas rush I was familiar with – making lists of all the things forgotten and needing to be organised before ‘the day’ arrives. I sat in my office and listened to the laughter of my colleagues figuring out who was going to what store and how they could divide their lists and help each other out.
My first iftar dinner was the Bachar Houli Foundation’s iftar at the MCG – I definitely lucked out there. Seeing a room full of people coming together to break their fast was something special. But still, I had no desire to fast at this stage.
It wasn’t until we had our IMA iftar in the final week of Ramadan, where colleagues were talking about how they were going to miss Ramadan. Our Board Chairperson was pregnant at the time, and she spoke about actually missing that she wasn’t able to fast.
‘How?’ I thought to myself.
How could anyone miss not being able to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset?
Over the next few months, I asked a lot of questions about the pillars of faith.
I learnt about the intrinsic rewards felt by giving to charity, and taking the time out of each day to pray. I was taught how during Ramadan, your prayers and charity are even more special and powerful, connecting each person more to God.
I could see in people’s eyes and body language when they spoke of Ramadan how long lasting the impact was – something like when my children start their countdown calendars to Christmas.
So, I quietly made the decision that next Ramadan I would try fasting so I could better understand the experiences of the community that I work within.
As Ramadan 2023 came around, I hadn’t yet told my colleagues of my plan to fast for five days.
I felt five days was long enough to get a proper feel for what it might be like.
I made the decision to start the week that ended with Good Friday – so that I could combine my faith with that of my colleagues, and share my journey with my friends and family.
If I am being honest, I was a little nervous to mention it to everyone because I wasn’t sure of whether I could do it or whether it would be considered ‘well-intentioned but offensive’. I told the team of my plan, and their reactions were akin to having my own excited cheer-squad. I had said it out loud, there was no going back.
I commute from regional Victoria to the city for work, so waking up at 4.30am for suhur (pre-dawn meal) wasn’t too much of a struggle as it was my regular wake-up time.
I remembered all the advice given to me about how to tackle suhur to make sure the day was easier to get through: protein, plenty of water, and coffee. So that’s what I did. Trying to drink 2L of water first up was a challenge in itself, but I got there… just. When my alarm signaled that suhur was finished and there was no more food or drink until iftar, my brain went into panic; but, that was quickly interrupted by the kids waking up and regular routine setting in.
The day at work was busy, so I genuinely didn’t notice hunger or thirst until just before iftar. I thought, if this is how the week goes, I’m laughing…
I made a mistake.
I went to the supermarket mid-morning.
My word, my brain was trying to convince my body it was dying and needed literally everything I walked past. Even the stuff I never would consider eating, my brain was telling me; ‘that pile of Brussel sprouts there is what you need right now at 10.30am’.
Image: Kym’s first suhur (pre-dawn) meal. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
From that point onwards, all I could think about was how thirsty I was. It was ridiculous.
I had to check myself time and time again, reminding myself why I was doing this. I thought about past students and colleagues that I had worked with in the Northern Territory – fasting in the Darwin heat, working as normal in a school context that did not necessarily offer the support it could have. I took a minute and did some mindful meditation. I stopped and thought about how prayer times might offer that time to reconnect to the why’s and what for’s of Ramadan. It helped a little, but come iftar on this day – I was glad the fast was over.
Similar to Day 1, today was hectic. We had a huge function happening at work so everyone was busy preparing for it.
I was talking with a colleague about how I had been thinking about past students, and how I could have been a better teacher during Ramadan for them. I felt, thinking back on things, that while I was mindful of the students who were fasting, it really didn’t change up the way things happened.
I talked to my colleague about how doing this experience has made me consider how important it is for non-Muslim teachers to understand the additional challenges their students might be feeling during the month of Ramadan; how extensions or shifting content in the curriculum around might help. Our academic calendars are connected to Christian holidays which benefit students of Christian persuasion. This experience has made me more aware of the impact this might have on students of other faiths.
My colleague agreed that having non-Muslims teachers be more aware would be a good thing, but for the Muslim student Ramadan, is something they have grown up knowing and learning about, so they are used to the routine of school during their month of fasting.
Today definitely had me thinking about the privileges I have been afforded as a Catholic in Australia.
Image: A snippet from Kym’s personal video diary of fasting during Ramadan.
Over the hump and near the end.
I started today with suhur at a colleague’s house. It was really special for me to be part of a family celebrating Ramadan. They made me an amazing meal, taught me more about the Prophet (PBUH) and how He lived His life. I don’t think I can express the feeling of gratitude I had for being welcomed into their home, and having their faith and culture shared with me.
The work day was another busy one so before I knew it, it was time to break my fast again.
I definitely noticed that I was more tired by the end of the day, which made me think about how exhausting the end of the Ramadan month must be.
Today was also the day that my children were asking about what I was doing and why. Their genuine curiosity and support reminded me of how important education is, and how different Australia might be if more people were open to the conversations.
Day 5 – Last Day
Waking up this morning was hard going. I almost missed suhur. It was a cold and rainy day, and all I wanted was a cup of tea. I think of all the days, the last was the hardest. It felt like the day was dragging on – I could feel the end was near, but every time I looked at my watch it had only been a few minutes.
I took the time to stop and think about what I had learnt, the crossovers with my own faith and how it might impact me moving forward. In a week I discovered the self-control I didn’t know existed. I took purposeful time to stop and breathe and tried to reconnect.
It was Good Friday, so my family were coming together and celebrating the start of our Easter weekend. Iftar came, and my family all celebrated with our Good Friday tradition of fish and chips. I was done, and in all honesty it impacted me more than I thought it would.
I started this experience wanting to learn more about what Ramadan was like, and how someone might miss it when it’s over.
Over the course of the five days, I was able to take the time and reflect on what I was thinking and feeling. In turn, it forced me to think about others – putting my experiences into context. I think that was the most powerful part of the whole experience; it wasn’t just about me, it was about the interconnectedness of everyone’s experiences and how we come together as a community.
While I don’t know exactly how a whole month of Ramadan feels, I have a little more understanding of what it might be like and this helps me to better understand the community I am working within. My family and friends asked more questions and learnt more about Islam than they had ever previously, so again it brought people together with knowledge and understanding.
Ultimately, the week of fasting gave me space and grace to reflect on what is important in my life, and I think that’s what makes Ramadan so special.