Sofia always used to look forward to Ramadan.
It wasn’t the religious rituals or the spirituality of the holy Islamic month that was most appealing. Rather, she says, “it was because my family would praise me for not eating”.
But early last year, Sofia, who’s currently a university student in Manchester (she didn’t want to give her full name because she feared it could affect her relationship with her family), was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa after being found unconscious on her kitchen floor by a former flatmate.
She has been dealing with the condition since she began deliberately stopping herself from eating at the age of 12. “It was quite tricky managing that,” she says. “My family are very traditional Pakistani Muslims, so food was very important in my house.”
Nevertheless, Sofia says she was able to avoid eating, usually by telling her family she needed to do homework, or deliberately tiring herself out by cooking, and telling her family she would eat later.
“To be honest, my parents – my community – really didn’t know much about any type of eating disorder,” she says. “Actually, they would see being thin as being beautiful … You know, like a [woman] who would be desirable in marriage. So even when I was really thin, no one in my family said much, and I could get away with eating next to nothing.”
Ramadan – the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims usually fast for up to 18 hours a day – took on a different level of significance for Sofia.
“A lot of Muslims use Ramadan as a way to become closer to God, and I tried my best to do that too…but it also meant that I would actually be encouraged not to eat,” she says. “I’d look forward to losing lots of weight, and [get] really scared that by the time I broke my fast I’d gain it all back again – so I’d make sure, sometimes, that I wouldn’t even eat more than just a date or two after breaking time.”
Sofia felt that when her parents had questioned why she didn’t eat more, she could deflect it using Islamic texts relating to the actions of the Prophet Muhammad, known as hadith: “I used to say to them that said the Prophet would never eat until he was full – that he’d always make sure he had only filled a quarter, or half his stomach – and it actually made me feel like what I was doing was a religious duty. That I wasn’t eating because I wanted to become closer to Allah.”