My first iftar was by no means an extravagant feast, nor did it take place in a crowded room. It was at our family’s dimly-lit kitchen table in London, Ont., with a bowl of olives, hummus and pita, and my mother sitting across from 12-year-old me. After a whole day spent not eating as part of Ramadan, we were breaking our fast. As we stretched into the month where the act of abstaining from food and drink (yes, even water) until dusk slowly became as second nature as breathing and blinking, the meals got more elaborate. Sometimes guests would come over, my mother’s new friends from the mosque. Sometimes we would go over to their homes. Those friends soon became family—and fasting became easier.
That all changed when I moved away to attend university in Toronto. Practising iftar became harder as I struggled to find a community on campus. I’m in my last year of school now and as much as my university’s brochures would like everyone to believe, it isn’t diverse as it thinks it is. Without a constant space for my faith to flourish, I dipped out observing for a while until the loneliness became so consuming that I was compelled to search for new community.
It’s been a little more than five years since I’ve lived away from my family, but I’ve only recently started to attend iftars again. It helps that I have discovered a new way to come together to celebrate through online communities that know no boundaries. In fact, I owe it to the friendships made with fellow young Muslim women, as well as online communities like the Ramadan Support Group, which was founded by Pacinthe Mattar, a producer at CBC’s The Current.
Creating an online community: “There’s no one way to be Muslim”
After a string of Ramadans spent alone, Mattar asked her Facebook friends for a little help. People from Toronto to California chimed in, and an online group took shape.
That was three years ago. Now pushing nearly 300 members, Mattar’s Ramadan Support Group has become what she calls “a community of communities.” Although she had made the private Facebook group for Muslims who struggle to find their place, she welcomes all Muslims (religious or not) and non-Muslims to request to join.
Mattar herself has written a beautiful essay for BuzzFeed about her group and its effect on her—and I found it resonating with me for many of those same reasons, so I reached out to her directly to learn more.
“The point of the group is just to remind all of us that we are here, that there is no one way to be Muslim. We’re all at different stages and levels and a place in our relationship with our faith, and it doesn’t make anyone any less or more of a Muslim than everyone else,” says Mattar.
The group doesn’t stratify the non-observant away from the super religious either. Instead, it’s full of posts about iftar plans, worries, celebrations, jokes and of course, memes (because why not?). It emphasizes finding a common ground free from judgement, no matter where you are in the world.
“There’s a kind of shared language of both joys and difficulties of the month. It gives you that connection, even if we’re not in the same room celebrating. Like complaining about coffee—it’s like, OK we’re all in this together. It gives us the opportunity to find each other,” says Mattar.
Toronto’s first LGBTQ mosque, Peace Iftar and more inclusive spaces
The idea of finding each other in more inclusive spaces—either online or IRL—to keep our faith strong is something I know many of my Muslim peers have struggled with. It goes hand in hand with the transition toward adulthood. We’re navigating part-time gigs and new and old friends and lovers; we’re renting from place to place like you might hop between bars on Saturday night; we’re perennially becoming new people every six months it seems.
The way you observe Ramadan, fasting or not, is included in that too. Family might be far away. Ditto to the community you had growing up. Iftar becomes a matter of choosing who you want to spend time with during the month of Ramadan. As for how we try to find those communities, well, our generation was raised with the internet—so it only makes sense that we’re carving out space online.
In addition to speaking with Mattar, I wanted to find other non-conventional ways millennials are coming together as part of chosen communities during Ramadan. I came across Unity Mosque, Toronto’s first LGBTQ mosque, founded by El-Farouk Khaki, his partner Troy Jackson and friend Laury Silvers. When I had reached out to Khaki, he told me that Unity Mosque derived from his own pursuit of a community back in 1991 when he found Salaam Canada, a Queer Muslim support group that meets monthly in Toronto. “I knew I wasn’t the only gay Muslim in the world, but I didn’t know anybody else,” he said. “Meeting up with these people, it wasn’t like we were praying together or anything like that. It was more of knowing them, seeing them, and sharing some kind of space with them that was transformative.”
In 2003, Khaki attended a queer Passover seder with a former partner and was inspired by what he had seen as something “so beautifully subversive.” When Ramadan came around that year, he decided to do an iftar version of what he had seen months before. The annual event, now known as the Peace Iftar, has been going on for a decade and a half.
Since new faces appear each year, Peace Iftar’s seating is intentionally cafeteria-style—there’s no breaking off into smaller groups. Khaki believes it’s vital for people to be able to know that they can come in the space and make connections.
“The sense of community becomes your safety net, it becomes your magnifying glass, it becomes your support network,” he says. “Especially for many of us who have been subjected to marginalization and trauma within our communities because we’re not the right gender or we don’t present ourselves the right way, or you know we have to lie who or what we are in order to be safe. It becomes very important to have spaces where we don’t have to always justify our existence.”
Going to my first iftar outside my family home
As I’ve made the search for iftars the past two years, the thought of my own family and family friends has often crossed my mind. I love my mother and I respect and adore her friends, but I’m still discovering who I am outside my family home and in the ways in which I see myself as a Muslim.
Celebrating iftar with a chosen community is one way that’s helped encourage my self-discovery. The first time I had spent an iftar with a group of people outside of my family, I didn’t feel the need to perform in a way that would have been expected of me. That feeling was truly remarkable.
It’s so clear to me there are people just like me looking for new communities, too. Fortunately, we’re seeing more opportunities take shape, and so too the possibility of really finding each other.