Updated: May 6, 2021
Now, for a lot of the people of Milton Keynes, this April/May is nothing of significance, other than the fact we are all unhappy about the weather and counting down the days until the pubs are open fully.
But, for a huge number of people in our city, and the world, this time of year is something very special, as it is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
I went to meet with a young woman who with her family, is fasting during this time, and not only will she and I hopefully change some of your ideas of what a Muslim may be like, we hope to change your opinion of what they might look like too.
Maisa, is an 18 year old girl, who like most teenagers of her age is finishing her A-levels, wondering what course her life is about to take, and making plans for her summer.
Her hair is a beautiful shade of red, her eyes are green and her skin tone and freckles would be matching of someone who hails from a Celtic homeland.
But to many’s disbelief, Maisa, is half Pakistani and has identified as Muslim, along with her two brothers, her entire life.
Maisa told me that she enjoys how she looks and the shock in people's faces when they learn about her religious beliefs. She says that she finds it "fun to be uncommon and that it’s always good to educate people."
Maisa was born to an English Christian mother, and a Muslim Pakistani father (who was born in the UK), her brothers and herself chose to follow their father's religious beliefs, although she said it was something her parents had discussed before they had kids, and even though her dad has never pushed her, that her beliefs and faith are her own choice and feels right for her.
Maisa and I talked about other people's perceptions of her and her appearance and it's not only her hair and skin colour that surprise others, a lot of people are surprised by Maisa's dress sense and that she doesn’t cover her hair.
Maisa said that she has worn a hijab when praying, but that at the moment it wouldn’t be something she would consider on an everyday basis.
She said that "as a younger teenager, I sometimes wanted to wear vest tops and found myself annoyed and didn’t understand why the other girls could wear them but I could not, but as I am older now I understand it and am happy not to dress that way."
She also wanted it to be known, that a lot of Muslim dress codes are not "forced upon you, the wearer is the one who chooses to or not" and for her, this is just an element of the religion that she has not chosen to do.
As most 18 year olds in Milton Keynes, Maisa and her friends socialise and go to parties, we discussed how this is for her, as practising Muslims abstain from drinking alcohol.
She said that "I’ve never wished for it, as I’m an extrovert person and although others feel it makes parties more fun, I find that I have just as much fun as everyone else, except I don't wake up with a hangover".
As well as alcohol, Muslims don't eat pork or any other meat that is not halal. One of the most common questions people ask her is "don't you wish you could have bacon" and as Maisa said, like with alcohol, she does not miss something that she has never had.
She said that going to eat as a family when out, can sometimes be tricky, as when they stick to vegetarian or seafood- there can be a lot of alcohol added to dishes too.
I asked if she were to have a partner and children in the future, whether their religion would be important to her, she said that "It would be nice to end up with a Muslim partner, as its always nice to share the same feelings and beliefs with another. It would also make it easier to follow traditions if my partner had the same. I would also want it for my children too, as having a religion is a nice thing and it's important to be part of something that is bigger than yourself."
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims across the globe fast during the daylight hours, this means that they cannot eat any food or drink any liquids as long as the sun is up and there is daylight.
I met Maisa on day 17 of her 30 day fast, she says that she has been "enjoying the fast, and that when it is over, I will feel a huge sense of accomplishment and I'm grateful for the experience".
Maisa, her father and her two brothers all get up at around 3 in the morning, to eat and pray before going back to bed for a while. She says that this meal time at 3am isn't the chatty family meal you might expect, as they're all still half asleep and the aim is to eat, pray, and then get on with the day when it arrives later that morning.
Although I personally cannot imagine having what I would consider "breakfast" at 3am, she says it's not so bad and that she mainly eats cereal, or leftovers- but her dad the previous night had eaten half a roast dinner at 3am, as that is what was left and it would be good to keep his body going throughout the day.
I approached the subject of weight-loss with Maisa, regarding her fasting, but to her she said "that part of it is never important, and focusing on weight-loss during the fast takes focus away from the purpose of the fast itself".
Which for her and many others is a time of deeply personal worship in which they seek a raised level of closeness to their own faith.
If I were to compare 18 year old myself, to the very focused Maisa, I would probably be embarrassed by the difference between the two of us and her maturity and respect for this sacred time of the year is something akin to someone much older than her years and definitely something to be admired.
As the end of academic schooling is approaching for Maisa and her entire life is in-front of her, she is planning what direction her life is about to take.
Her first plan for after summer, is to get a job working in the Alps in a chalet, earning money, living in the mountains and experiencing life as a young adult.
I lived abroad for quite a few years in my 20's and as Maisa is going to see for herself, I learnt and experienced so much. But I am envious of how much money I know that she will save when experiencing a life like this without drinking alcohol, which to my personal shame, probably took most of my wages back in those days.
Maisa appeared to me to be a very hardworking and driven young woman, she already has a job lined up for the summer holidays, she is hoping to start waitressing again Friday and Saturday nights when the restuarants open, and she is a certified referee, and works as this during the day on a weekend with local kids at football matches.
Her goal and plans for the further ahead future, is to train as a firefighter in the RAF, she said that for a long time "I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that an office job was not for me, I knew I wanted to do something practical and working as a part of a team was important to me too".
Some of the requirements for getting into this field is having a full drivers license, running 2.4 kilometres in 13 and a half minutes and having a good amount of body muscle mass.
With this in mind, Maisa has been learning to drive, is trying to get into the next available driving test to receive her full license. She has been running the "couch to 5k" with her mum and once a week sees a personal trainer to help improve her muscle mass and strength.
There aren’t many teenage girls that I have ever met with that kind of determination or drive.
I wonder if Maisa's religion has helped her become the person that she is, a person who despite her youth has huge respect for herself, her body, her family and her life.
I'm not sure what I was expecting this young woman to be like when I met her, I knew that she would surprise me in many ways, but to the extent in which she did made me apprehensive to write this article. I wanted to do Maisa the justice that she deserved in trying to portray who she is and the life that she leads.
I thought I might meet a young girl, that despite fasting this month would moan about being hungry or talk about missing eating with her friends at school.
But who I met was a young woman, who not only was very respectful of herself and her religion, was not trying to look for any kind of attention for it and wasn’t trying to be like anyone else.
She was completely unique and she enjoyed that about herself.
Maisa is a young woman with eyes open to the world around her, a level head above any that I have met of her age and a drive for her life that could match even people I have met who are well into their adult life.
She didn't let her faith define her, but in my opinion it has lead her to having a more fulfilling life full of self appreciation and respect for herself and others around her and I know that from only meeting her for this short amount of time that she is going to have a very interesting life ahead of her.
Thanks for reading,
Not Such A Soulless City
(Article and Photos by Steph Loake)