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Is the British school wrong in discouraging students from fasting?

June 18, 2015

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Banning adult students from fasting would be inappropriate, but with primary school children, it's a different matter. —Reuters
Banning adult students from fasting would be inappropriate, but with primary school children, it's a different matter. —Reuters

A primary school in East London has sent out letters to their Muslim pupils’ parents, informing them that their children would not be allowed to fast on school grounds. Although it is tempting to write this one off as Islamophobia, it’s prudent to resist hasty judgement.

The letter sent out by Barclay Primary School begins with the administration’s acknowledgement of the enormous significance of the holy month for Muslim families, and offers to celebrate Ramazan with them by discussing Islamic customs in assembly and classes.

Also read: London school trust bans Muslim students from fasting in Ramazan

Contentiously, the letter informs parents of the school’s decision to ban the fasting for children during school time. According to the administration, this decision takes into consideration the June/July heatwave, long fasting hours in the UK, and the fact that the previous year’s fasting left several Muslim pupils feeling weak and ill, or even fainting during school hours.

Children tend to imitate their adult family members who fast in the month of Ramazan, especially when encouraged to do so and also when they are informed of the virtuousness of the ritual. However, their growing bodies may be biologically ill-equipped to effectively handle prolonged periods of sustenance deprivation.

How many of us recollect our own school days during Ramazan, when we miserably begged the teacher to give us a “free period” as we couldn’t focus on the lessons because of the fast? Are Barclay Primary’s fears that hungry and thirsty children would be “unable to fully access the school curriculum” unfounded?

Note that the knowledge that fasting is not compulsory for children is not lost on the school administration.

“We have sought guidance and are reliably informed that in Islamic Law, children are not required to fast during Ramazan, only being required to do so when they become adults," the letter from the school said.

Protesting parents may argue that their children have the right to choose to fast on school grounds if they want to. This argument is ignorant of the fact that a minor’s consent does not bear the value of an adult’s.

While it would be wholly inappropriate of a college to ban its adult students from fasting, a primary school can make certain decisions on behalf of the child’s welfare during school hours. And that includes doing what it takes to keep pupils from fainting in the playground, or being inattentive in the classroom.

Also read: China pushes Uighurs to give up fasting in Ramazan

For fear of being deemed Islamophobic, the school further stated that parents especially adamant on making their children fast should have a meeting with the Head of School, so they may discuss special arrangements for their children’s safety. In other words, the “ban” is merely a strong recommendation, and will not be strictly enforced anyway.

I don’t claim to be an authority on religious matters. As a doctor, I claim to have some understanding of the inner mechanisms of the human body, whose physiological engine doesn’t run on willpower alone; it runs on sugar and water.

This factoid being especially true for children who naturally have an overactive metabolism, one can understand why the Muslim world almost unanimously agrees that fasting isn’t mandatory for our little ones.

I hope these families, for their children’s sake, make healthy use of that concession.