Illustration by Sidra Dahhan

How can we navigate Ramadan with Respect and Inclusion at NYUAD?

Over Ramadan, the diverse NYUAD student body has grappled with how to act during the holy month. How do we as a community engage with Ramadan in a way that embodies values of cultural respect, inclusion, and tolerance?

Apr 17, 2023

It was yet another day of scrolling through the myriad of Facebook groups, attempting to catch up on all of the on-campus news and events when suddenly, a few posts caught my eye. I kept seeing debates about notions of respect and holiness during the month of Ramadan, along with subtle impositions of certain cultural values by both who are observing and not. I saw a range of responses on an NYU Abu Dhabi social media forum, with some trying to educate others on the topic, some getting angry and frustrated at the discourse and others mocking the sudden surge of these posts with sarcasm.
If you are unaware of the aforementioned discourse, it revolves around the month of Ramadan, its traditions, and people — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — practicing the customs of this holy month. Some argued that everyone should refrain from eating and drinking outside of the designated areas, such as the dining halls or right in front of the restaurants at Marketplace, in order to respect the people who fast. Some argued that it’s imperative to avoid public displays of affection and ensure that everyone is wearing non-revealing clothing at all times. This brought up questions about student policing and what should be expected of each other. The responses to these opinions varied greatly, with some people finding them unmerited and others supporting them wholeheartedly and sharing more personal experiences.
The problem is not that this conversation was brought up on an anonymous platform — it is that it remained on it. I saw many people ask very meaningful questions that could lead to a more nuanced understanding of religion. When the conversations that begin on these anonymous platforms tend to stay on those platforms, it takes away from their potential impact. In order for them to lead to solutions, they need to be stripped of anonymity. This tends to be the case with social media apps in general, where due to the anonymity and non-confrontational nature of the various anonymous spaces, the effect is inflated. The people that have these opinions will never be known and that is why nobody can talk to them outside of the application. Did Facebook create a space where people are free and comfortable to share their opinions? Yes, but I believe this conversation, like many others, needs to be further discussed outside of the insulated echo-chamber of social media. People’s opinions need to be further fleshed out, the discourse needs to not be drowned out by the abundance of posts and opinions, and some agreements need to be made. I am doubtful whether that is possible on a social media app such as Facebook.
A few questions that I saw mentioned, and that I repeatedly asked myself, were about the expectations of non-Muslims to abide by the rules and regulations of Ramadan. Should non-Muslims be expected to not wear clothing of their choice, not eat outside during fasting hours, and not show public displays of affection? Why would individuals who do not adhere to the religion be inclined to follow these same guidelines? I understand both perspectives, and I believe that it comes down to the fundamental understanding of respect.
Some Muslims view respecting Ramadan as ensuring that fasting individuals are not exposed to food, water, or other people engaging in activity that some may consider ‘unholy’ or ‘haram’. One could make the argument that it is not a big request to ask for one month in the year, and that as a student living in a Muslim country with many practicing Muslims on campus, this level of respect should be upheld.
However, this is a point of view that leaves a lot of questions unanswered, particularly about the fairness of such an imposition. We cannot expect every student to know about the cultural complexities of every single religion, especially because NYUAD prides itself on being an incredibly diverse campus. I think that even if they have a comprehensive understanding of Ramadan and what it entails, it is not always fair for everyone to be held to these standards. I immediately compared it to other religions that I am aware of and ones that my friends are practicing, or non-religious students or students that are spiritual but not religious. Including all of them is important to this conversation as tolerance could be different in every context. These same expectations are then not seen when observing people who identify with Hinduism and some people’s abstinence from eating beef or Christians and related sects going vegan for lent.
As a Muslim, I have a responsibility to reflect on what differentiates Islam from these other religions, and why that same expectation is not placed on the entire student body to not eat beef or non-vegan food around Hindus and Christians. While I can recognize the inherent difference between fasting from dawn to dusk and following a specific diet, I still think these questions have merit. The reason for most forms of religious fasting is to practice discipline, tolerance, and as a form of worship, so are any of them really that different from each other?
A response to many of the aforementioned posts was simply that Ramadan is not about having the perfect environment to fast or about having control over other people’s actions. It is a month centered around each person’s own spirituality. It is about making sacrifices despite the challenges that you will inevitably face along the way and it is only through those difficulties that you can truly practice discipline. However, I believe that this point of view does lack the discussion of respect and what it means to truly respect someone of another religion. Respect differs from person to person, however, so what happens when a person states that they do not mind it? Should respect be seen as general, regardless of the person’s views? Would this apply to every religion? If respect is individual, is it feasible to place that expectation on everyone? Is either of these solutions reasonable and effective?
I definitely do not have all of the answers and I do not think that I am equipped to find a solution to this problem, but I do think that some of the expectations placed on non-Muslims can be incredibly overwhelming and a bit unfair. I do think that eating could easily be restricted to the dining halls and marketplace without it being too much of a compromise. I do not, however, believe that restricting people’s clothing or actions is something that could be ethically imposed. It is also not something that people could come to a consensus about. The highly subjective nature of this topic is why I think myself, and others, struggle to come to a conclusion about this topic.
I also believe that a conversation as in-depth as this should not be limited to a Facebook page. I can, however, recognize the role of social media forums in initiating tough conversations and providing an outlet for people to share their opinions. People do not always have an avenue where they feel safe to express their opinions on cultural and religious matters such as this because of the fear of criticism. That is why their choice to resort to anonymous forums can be seen as a middle-ground for sharing opinions but remaining immune to the criticism they might face. Do I think anonymous Facebook posts will be the solution to our problems? Absolutely not. We should extend this discourse to the wider community and not limit it to one where a nuanced discussion is likely not going to be had. We all need to collectively challenge our preconceived notions, and maybe be a bit more welcoming to new ideas and questions.
Dana Mash Al is Deputy Columns Editor. Email her at
gazelle logo