It's time to talk about Ramadan and eating disorders

It's time to talk about Ramadan and eating disorders
4 min read
22 May, 2020
Muslim women with eating disorders often suffer in silence during Ramadan.
There is little awareness in the Muslim community around mental health and eating disorders. [Getty]
Ramadan is a time of healing for many Muslims. It is a time to strengthen their spiritual faith and connection to God. However, stripping away worship and spirituality, Ramadan is also a time where Muslims abstain from food or drink from sunrise to sunset. 

Yes, not even water is permissible. Since fasts can last from twelve to nineteen hours each day, naturally, this adjustment can be a struggle

For Muslim women with eating disorders, who usually spend their days before Ramadan restricting their diets as a form of control, or those with low self-esteem issues, this period becomes a perfect camouflage for not eating or drinking without being questioned by those around them or raising concern. 

A study conducted in 2016, which looked at the effect of fasting during Ramadan on disordered eating behaviours, concluded that dietary restrictions for health or appearance related reasons are a known contributor to eating disorders.

It also recognised that dietary restrictions for religious purposes, such as observing fasting during Ramadan, didn't necessarily confer increased risk of disordered eating symptoms. 

Read more: British Muslims are keeping community spirit alive this

Much of the disordered behaviour is built into intentions and mindset. A 2004 study concluded that eating disorders in the Western world are prevalent and higher than that of non-Western countries, however, the study recognised that the non-Western group wasn't big enough to obtain accurate prevalence figures. 

Asma Elbadawi, a poet, activist and basketball player, spoke to The New Arab about her struggle with an eating disorder, which started in her early twenties and was triggered by stress. Elbadawi said she has "fasted every year" because despite restricting her food growing up she's only recently been diagnosed with having an eating disorder.

"When [you have] an illness related to your mind people don't understand why you can't fast," she said, because they don't believe you are unwell unless they are able to physically see your symptoms.

With little awareness in the community around mental health issues and eating disorders, there can often be a lack of compassion. Many women who spoke to The New Arab said their religiosity is questioned and they've been told "if you fast you will get better" as well as being told that if they dressed modestly they wouldn't have body image issues.

With little awareness in the community around mental health issues and eating disorders, there can often be a lack of compassion

For others, these questions can be triggering, encouraging further self-doubt and commitment to their faith over something they aren't in control of themselves. 

Of the Muslim women The New Arab spoke to many were unwilling to be publicly named because they felt that they were forced to feel ashamed for the struggles they endured. When asked about how they managed their eating disorders they emphasised the Islamic perspective of looking after their bodies. Islamically it is not permissible to fast if you will be causing damage to your body.

Read more: Growing closer to God during Ramadan under lockdown

Many of these women discussed the mercy and understanding they felt within their faith for their conditions, but this mercy and understanding wasn't granted to them in their community spaces, or sometimes even within their families. 

In a recent Instagram video, Elbadawi talked candidly to her followers about why she wasn't fasting this Ramadan and her struggle with feeling disconnected from the communal vibe of Ramadan. Elbadawi explained that her disorder would only worsen if she did take part but acknowledged that she missed the spirit of fasting despite participating in other ways.

As many Muslims struggle with fasting and abstaining from eating or drinking, Elbadawi faces a completely opposite struggle to continue to regularly eat and keep herself healthy. 

Many women who struggle with eating disorders still do so in quiet corners, often keeping up the charade of waking up to eat or break their fast with the family to keep up appearances.

As this Ramadan ends, we must spare a thought for those who have struggled, and the community must acknowledge and do more when it comes to supporting those who are more vulnerable. 

For those struggling with eating disorders there are many services and safe spaces who are able to help, including; Muslim Youth HelpineBeat and Muslim Women Network Helpline

Mariam Khan is a British writer and activist. She is the editor of It's Not About the Burqa, an anthology of essays by Muslim women.

Follow her on Twitter @helloiammariam