This year marks the second or third time I’ve observed Ramadan as an adult in Nigeria. I have always been aware of how ethnic and religious lines are drawn in Nigeria but each time I am in the country, it always strikes me again like a slap in the face. In a context where hyper-religiosity is the norm, where on every street corner there is at least one or two churches plus an equal number of mosques, and lines are drawn between Islam and Christianity (all other religions are ignored), religion becomes an important identifier. Because ethnic and religions lines are so drawn out, and nepotism is the norm, it is not uncommon to find myself the odd one out depending on the situation. At work I’m not only the only Muslim staff, but also the only Yoruba one; once my coworkers knew I was Muslim, I became the Muslim coworker, “my only Muslim friend”, “the only nice Muslim I know,” “the only Muslim woman who would shake my hand,” and other variations. Although I do not choose Islam as my foremost identity, I am always acutely aware of my being a Muslim when I’m in Nigeria. All of a sudden I wonder if I should have more Muslim friends, because what does it mean to be friends with people who suffer from varying degrees of Islamophobia but don’t know what Islamophobia is?
Sometime in February I entered into a relationship with someone who isn’t Muslim. Someone who used to be a born-again Pentecostal Christian, as many Nigerian Christians are, and who did not know anything about Muslims or Islam, yet still thought to look down on the religion. I have always thought I could date anyone regardless of religious beliefs as long as we shared certain principles and values. And my significant other was ready to learn something about Islam from me. At first, I was eager to share my beliefs. I am not the most devout Muslimah, but I did share what I had, offered to lend my Quran, and explained what Ramadan is, as well as how important it is to me.
But as Ramadan approached, I got confused as to how to reconcile my budding relationship with a non-Muslim during this holy month. It may have been due to the fact that there were already little tensions and misunderstandings before Ramadan that I called for a break, a pause to the relationship that will be continued after Ramadan. After all, during Ramadan we would not be able to meet up for our weekly lunches, so it would be awkward on a practical level too.
We talked and I explained that Ramadan is a yearly opportunity for me to step back and evaluate myself. I have always found Ramadan to be a chance to restart, if you will, my connection to Allah and to myself. I used to be more dedicated to Islam as a teenager, and was active in my university’s MSA until the racism I experienced and witnessed there led to me questioning my faith. So Ramadan became a chance to attempt to be as solid in my faith as I was back then, while being aware of issues such as racism and misogyny. Ramadan is almost like New Year’s to me; I set up resolutions and personal goals that I hope to achieve before the next Ramadan rolls up.
This year, I have spent a lot of time and energy thinking about what it means for me to be in a committed relationship with someone who is not Muslim. Even as I am and have always considered myself to be open-minded when it comes to religion, and have never put “must be Muslim” on my list of what I want in a partner, now that I am in a relationship I find myself wondering when I will reach the point where I am tired of explaining. Explaining why shoes should not be on a praying mat or what exactly counts as Sharia. I don’t want to explain why (even though I may not say my five daily prayers throughout the year, and I do not wear hijab, and I hold an interest in other religions) Ramadan remains important to me. I have spent most of this Ramadan contemplating what it means to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t understand the importance of this month to me (even though it is respected).
Ramadan at home in Nigeria is a time when I can bond with my family over cooking and eating iftaar, and even sahri (suhoor), during which we find time to chat over cups of groundnut gruel, but I have found it so hard to maintain an intimate relationship over Ramadan. I imagine it would be easier if I was dating a Muslim that I could invite to break the fast without my family wondering why a non-Muslim was coming every other day to eat iftaar. As the end of Ramadan approaches, I have to wonder about continuing my relationship knowing that next year (if we are together that long) there will be another pause. My partner has shown no interest in fasting with me, but I think what it comes down to is my not knowing how a pre-marital relationship works during this sacred month, and I wonder if this is truly healthy for an intimate relationship.
For more on MMW’s Ramadan series, and to read the rest of this year’s Ramadan posts, click here.