Nathifah Hussein has been spending most of her recent lunch breaks in the library at Bedford High School.
As an observant Muslim, she is fulfilling the religious obligation of Ramadan, fasting for almost a month each day from dawn to sunset.
Nathifah, a high school junior, feels like her fasting is fulfilling its intentions. There’s a spiritual component: “It’s a way to bring you closer to God. You connect more in the religion.”
She said she is also learning “self-restraint and patience,” and empathizing with millions worldwide who are food insecure. “There are people in poorer conditions, and God wants us to feel what they feel so we can understand their pain. It makes you want to give what you have to them.” It also teaches appreciation; “so many people don’t finish food and just throw it out.”
Although few fellow students or teachers realize her daily routine, when they find out, they are interested and understanding, Nathifah related. “When I sit with my friends and I tell them I’m fasting, they start asking questions. They have open minds – kids are curious to learn.” Occasionally she is asked, “Aren’t you going to starve?”
Nathifah arrived at Bedford High School in the middle of ninth grade; her sister Fatma is a year younger, and they have a six-year-old brother. The family lived in Methuen where Nathifah said there was more of a critical mass of Muslims. In Bedford, “people are not as knowledgeable.”
“When I was really young, I wondered why my parents fasted,” Nathifah said. “They would explain to me that God wants us to feel what it’s like not to have food.”
Although children aren’t required to fast until puberty, Nathifah said she worked her way to a full day without food or drink gradually, starting with half-days and eventually then the entire day before age 12.
“You start fasting one hour before sunrise all the way to sunset,” Nathifah explained. Since the holiday follows an Islamic calendar rather than a solar pattern, fasting can be particularly challenging when Ramadan falls in the summer.
Nathifah acknowledged that there are times fasting affects her focus in school. A few years ago, the observance coincided with the MCAS test schedule, she said, and “it was hard to concentrate. But I learned to ignore the hunger so I can do things normally.”
She said there are certain foods that can be consumed before daylight that “keep me energized through the day.” And she added that it is important to hydrate between dusk and dawn.
Nathifah laughed when asked if she ever asks for special treatment to accommodate her Ramadan fasting. “I wouldn’t want that to affect how people see me,” she asserted.
Born in Turkey, Nathifah said she has been influenced by Turkish culture. But the family has African roots, she added, and “everybody knows Swahili.”
Nathifah said she has never directly encountered bigotry. “I don’t think I ever have gotten judged to my face,” she said. “I started wearing a hijab in fifth grade and mostly people are curious. Usually, people are understanding about my religion and how I practice it.”
After school, Nathifah attends classes at the Islamic Center of Burlington five days a week. “We learn the Koran and memorize,” she said. “I can read Arabic and am learning to understand it.”
She is anticipating Eid al Fitr, the festival marking the conclusion of Ramadan, beginning at the end of this week. “Everybody gets together. People visit family and do fun stuff and eat together.”
Looking past Ramadan, Nathifah had a suggestion for school administrators. “I feel like they should include halal options for Muslim students so we could have protein during school lunches.”