Is there a need to force children to fast in schools?


Is there a need to force children to fast in schools?
By Zan Azlee

It’s the fasting month. I’ll be honest, I’m pretty good at fasting. I started fasting for full days at around eight or nine years old. So that makes it 34 years of full continuous fasting every year. Not bad! Funny how I see it as a badge of achievement to wear on my sleeve.

I really don’t skip unless necessary and I can’t remember the last time I did that. Oh wait! I do remember. I was in Form Three and was playing in an invitational basketball tournament. I represented the school but it was optional. I had to play three games in a day and by the second game, I got thirsty.

But you learn as you go along. I’m much better at regulating my hunger, thirst and energy now. I can do my daily 5km runs during fasting month and still not break my fast. I don’t have to rest or take a nap during the day like many people I know who tend to ‘take it easier’ this month. But hey, to each his own.

I enjoy fasting. I still feel hungry and thirsty. I really don’t believe the people who say that they don’t think about food or drink at all. I start thinking about what I want to eat for buka puasa (break fast time) as soon as I wake up in the morning. And I get overjoyed when the day comes closer to Maghrib.

That’s the fun part for me. I enjoy thinking about the different foods that we get to choose from at the pasar (bazaar) Ramadan. I love how family and friends try to make it a point to break fast together and enjoy each others’ company. Then there is Hari Raya of course, which marks the end of fasting, woohoo!

Of course, there are other reasons to fast, such as for the soul and belief but that’s on a more personal level. I don’t think that is necessary to discuss if I don’t want to. So fasting does serve lots of purposes in my life and I don’t dread it. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable.

“Hey Pops!” my eldest daughter said to me last Wednesday at dinner, one day before fasting. “One of my teachers said that it’s a school rule anyone in Standard Four and above must fast.”

“What? How can that be? They can’t make it a rule. Go ask the teacher who announced this rule,” I told her.

I despise people who think that teaching religion and belief is through coercion and forcing it on others. This method only encourages resentment and anger.

So I despise it even more when I feel these people are doing it to my children because I don’t want my children to feel resentment and anger towards religion.

Teach them the right way

I attribute my joyous feelings about fasting to how my parents taught me. They never forced it on me and I was always allowed to break my fast if I needed to when I was younger. That’s exactly how my wife and I do it with our children. We always tell them that it’s a choice and if they do it unwillingly, then there’s no point.

Our two older girls started fasting around six or seven years old. We never once told them to fast. It was just a natural thing for them to ask about it because they saw us fasting. We said that they could try if they want and probably the best way is to start fasting for half a day.

My eldest daughter probably only fasted for half a day, two or three times, and then she immediately started fasting for full days. My wife and I were concerned and we constantly checked in to see if she was okay, as well as remind her it’s okay if she doesn’t want to. But she’s been doing fine.

Sure, there have been times she got a bit tired and wanted to break her fast. Go for it, we tell her. No pressure, dude! And it’s been the same for our second daughter who started fasting two years ago. She’s eight now and last week, she told us that she wanted to fast for half a day first to get used to it. Fine. No pressure, dude!

But when we woke up for sahur the first day, she said, “I’ll just go for a full day. If I can’t in the middle of the day, I’ll just eat something”. So we told her to bring a snack and some water to school in case she needed to break her fast midway.

Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek must have the same idea as I do when it comes to all of this. She called on school canteen operators to continue operating during fasting month and for the schools to allow this, even if it has less than 10 percent of non-Muslim students.

She said this is because not all Muslim students are required to fast and especially not at a young age. She also stressed that we need to be inclusive where “both sides respect each other, those who fast must be polite to those who are not fasting, and those who are not fasting must learn to respect those who are”.

Wise and rational words that should be normal in a truly multicultural society. So it’s sad to think that a statement like this would make me feel so happy, and it’s because it hasn’t been something that is actually normal in all my decades of living in Malaysia.

We have heard so many claims that non-fasting students were made to eat in toilets and by the side of drains during the fasting month. So much so these incidents are what is normal. This is wrong on so many levels and it has angered and disappointed me.

Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek

So kudos to the minister for her statements. We need to continue with the momentum of encouraging inclusivity and understanding. I hope all positive practices like this will go on forever and be the change that our country needs.

As for the teachers in my daughters’ school, please understand that hard rules won’t make students better people. Love and understanding do because that is what will make them do things for the right reasons. You’ll be surprised at how children respond to positivity and respect more than negativity and fear.

In the meantime, I’m going to try and persuade my wife to have nasi padang for buka puasa today. Happy Ramadan everyone and hope you will all have a joyous month!

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

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