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Ramadan 2001, Iran, Tehran

My friends and I were not fasting, hiding in our car in a quiet neighborhood close to our university and having our lunch before going to an afternoon class. We tried to be careful not to attract attention. Suddenly somebody started banging the car’s window – it was a huge, scary Islamic Police officer who had caught us eating:

“ Eating in public during holy Ramadan? Pagan bitches…Get out of the car! You’re going to get lashed to death for not obeying Allah’s laws…”

We knew how to deal with this unpleasant accident – some money all he needs… We drive away while kept calling him a jerk…

Of course, not everyone is so lucky to escape misery so easily in Iran where you can easily get lashed for not following Islamic law – women are still being stoned to death there for having sex outside of marriage…

As an Iranian woman who grew up under a fanatic Islamic regime (which seized power after killing a hundred thousand students and political activists fighting for freedom), I still have nightmares about being a woman in a religious environment where survival demanded that you pretend to be a good Muslim and follow the regime’s version of Islam.

In order to go to school I was forced to cover myself when I was 6 years old – even during the dog days of summer.  I could hardly keep it on my head a whole day. Of course, my parents had no choice but to force me to wear it for my own safety and theirs.  The risk of punishment was all to real, and all my non-Muslim friends were forced to cover themselves and read the Qur’an at school.

The Islamic rules were enforced most heavily during Ramadan when it was forbidden to eat or drink in public during daylight hours and all restaurants were closed. People who didn’t follow the Islamic laws and were caught for eating or drinking in public would be subject to the harshest punishment, still most  people I knew among family and friends in Iran never fasted nor celebrated Eid at the end of Ramadan as many muslims do in most Arabic or non-Arabic Islamic countries. Why?  Because many Iranians outside of the regime never accepted Islamic culture as their own and were always fiercely proud of their ancient  heritage, a rich, complex and deeply-civilized culture that still lives and breathes and sings even though Islam was forced on Persia some 1400 years ago.

My recollection of Iran is a mosaic of nightmares of getting in trouble due to the harsh application of Islamic rules. I wanted to escape from the hell created by the Mullahs (Iranian spiritual-political leaders) to somewhere where religion and government were kept separate – where relationships between people and their God (if ones believes) is a part of private life and not publicly enforced; where there is respect for the dignity of human beings and personal choices; where nobody has permission to force anybody else to heaven or coerce religious observance.

I longed for a place that could be a new home where my neighbors would not have the right to ask about my religious background, a place where I could live freely without being scared of being punished for showing my beautiful hair, talking about love or drinking water in public during Ramadan.

Could this place be Canada, the country where I ended up as a refugee seeking escape from the fundamentalist Islamic regime in my country?

Ramadan 2005, Canada, Ottawa, Carleton University.

Everywhere I go, someone is talking about Ramadan. Some students suggest classes be cancelled after 6 p.m. Others want to postpone mid-term exams or the deadline for papers until after Ramadan is over. We have a cocktail party, and a student asks us not to bring non-Halal meat or pork. Another suggests not having lunch in front of people who might be fasting.

Some Carleton University Students Association posters are torn down because they promoted sexually stimulating images in the “Holy Month of Ramadan”, which might have posed a problem for male students who were fasting! Some students argued that women shouldn’t wear what they considered to be “sexy” clothing because it is a sin for Muslim men to look at uncovered women with provocative dresses while they are fasting!

All this scared the hell out of me.  To where had I escaped? What happened to the “pluralism” and respect for personal choice that Canada is known for?

Aren’t Canadian universities supposed to be secular?

Compared to some other universities in West  which openly and unequivocally adopt secular values, some Canadian university including Carleton allows religious groups more influence than is acceptable in the pluralistic, tolerant environment that a university should be. In a Canadian university that should be inclusive and tolerant, those of us who are not Muslim should not have Ramadan and all it entails forced upon us.

As a woman who has endured, witnessed and documented some of the most extreme forms of misogyny, all justified in the name of Islam, I am troubled to see Ramadan arrive at Carleton University, bringing with it attempts by some students to restrict others’ rights – particularly those of women. Fasting is a personal choice.  Those who believe doing fasting will help them grow personally are free to do it.  But they have no right to force it on others.  People of many religions practice fasting – Jews, Christians, Bahais, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Hindus and…– but they do not all make it a public affair or force it on others.

At Carleton University some Muslim students need to accept that many student do not share their beliefs. The practice of Islam should not and does not require others to modify their behaviour to suit Muslims. Religion is a private matter, and many religions that have historically been dogmatic and intolerant have learned to co-exist peacefully and respectfully in Canada. That’s why Islam, as much as any other religion, is welcome here. So enjoy your freedom to be a Muslim.  But don’t force it on me, and respect the rights of others to practice what they believe.  If we yield to religious fanatics we will have lost our basic rights as human beings and Carleton will have become everything that a university should not be.