When Muslim-majority countries enter the Holy Month of Ramadan — the holiday that obliges every able-bodied Muslim to fast from sunrise to sundown for 30 days straight — society sort of turns on its head. The general rules no longer apply: offices close early, stores are shuttered for majority of the day, and people essentially stay up all night eating to make up for the fact that they can’t during the day.
The unfortunate flipside to this is that the observant tend to gain weight. Apparently eating heavy, fried foods at night — fast-food restaurants love to capitalize on the holiday, offering platters of food for very cheap — and nothing during the day is not great for your metabolism. But, for better or for worse, just as American fast-food culture has been adopted in the Islamic world, the so have the cult-like exercise fads of the last five years. The result: a concept known as “Ramadan boot camp.”
Ramadan boot camp is pretty much exactly like it sounds: participants are encouraged to channel the piety of the Holy Month of fasting into a weight-loss and fitness regimen, burning calories and getting closer to the divine. Adapting fitness fads to the religious month of abstinence is quite easy, it turns out; those devoted to exercise possess a similar kind of fervent belief as the ultra-pious.
My parents didn’t force or encourage me to fast during Ramadan, unlike in most Muslim households. As a result, I have gone my entire life without observing a full day of fasting (by Islamic standards, at least). This is a truth I’m meant to hide, especially now that I live in a country where openly breaking fast isn’t just frowned upon, it’s punishable by law: selling or eating food in public during the Holy Month is a crime, one that can come with jail time.
I have gone my entire life without observing a full day of fasting (by Islamic standards, at least).
But this year, when Ramadan came around, I wasn’t dreading it like I used to. That’s because I decided to commit to it — and to one of the handful of boot camps in Karachi, where I live. A week before the local moon-sighting committee declared the start to the Holy Month, I signed up for a camp I found on Facebook that promised weight loss, a better physique, and a whole new state of mind. “Ramadan is the best time to shed some pounds,” read the camp’s description. “NO MUSIC,” it went on — many religious Muslims believe listening to festive music during the month is also forbidden. “Ladies only.”
In a country like Pakistan, where kids regularly cup their hands begging for food on the street, making Ramadan about losing weight seems as incongruous with the idea of the Holy Month as Hardee’s family-sized Ramadan meal deals, which deliver various combinations of fried chicken, hamburgers, and gigantic soda bottles for as low as the equivalent of $3 per person.
But I was intrigued enough to sign up for four classes a week for the duration of the Holy Month. I also began fasting, not only in accordance with Islamic law but with the strict diet our coach had instructed us to follow.
Our workouts were scheduled an hour before sundown (about 7:15 p.m. in Pakistan) with the aim, our coach told us, of burning the most fat, because we’d be working out at our hungriest. According to some light googling, the science seemed to check out — it’s what Hugh Jackman did it to become Wolverine.
Those who signed up for the camp were requested to do a weigh-in at the trainer’s private gym before Ramadan began. This was when I finally saw the type of women attracted to the course. While the gym itself was nothing particularly out of the ordinary — yoga mats and hand weights strewn on the floor of a mirrored room — the gym-goers were not.
Our workouts were scheduled an hour before sundown with the aim, our coach told us, of burning the most fat, because we’d be working out at our hungriest.
Most of them were 35 and older, and did not possess the bodies of obvious gym rats under their loose modesty wear: cotton shalwaar kameez over sweatpants, or a black abaya, the garment worn only by the most strictly religious, wrapped over yoga pants. It seemed a lot of them were friends — they nervously chatted among each other in the line for the weigh-in.
“How many kilos are you trying to lose?” I heard one woman whisper to her friend.
“At least ten,” she replied casually.
I silently calculated behind them. “Ten kilos… that’s like 20 pounds. Holy shit. Are we going to lose 20 fucking pounds?” I thought to myself. I was getting kind of excited.
“How many kilos are you trying to lose?” I heard one woman whisper to her friend.
The women, meanwhile, were staring at me — I was probably a decade younger than most of them, and dressed in comparatively skimpy clothing in my skinny jeans and button-down shirt, an outfit acceptable in most of the places I frequent. But not at boot camp.
I stepped on their scale, took a stapled list of what foods I was supposed to eat and when, and ran to the grocery store frantically. It was the eve of the first of Ramadan, and the rest of the city seemed to have the same idea. As I checked out with my sanctioned almond milk and eggs, I inspected everyone else’s carts. As suspected, they were full of freezer-to-fryer snacks and multi-packs of soda. I already felt smug with newfound religion-cum-fitness asceticism.
That night, I dutifully ate an egg-white omelet and steamed vegetables while hanging out with some friends. They had grown up observing Ramadan but became lapsed Muslims. When I showed them the strict diet our coach had given us, one of them grew particularly concerned.
He asked me if I had fasted before. “These women, they’re professional fasters,” he said to me, regarding my classmates. “Adding a diet is kind of hard for them, but you’re fasting for the first time and dieting and working out?”
I stepped on their scale, took a stapled list of what foods I was supposed to eat and when, and ran to the grocery store frantically.
He was genuinely worried, and he was right to be — Karachi has been experiencing a seemingly never-ending heatwave. Was I really not going to drink water all day and do strenuous workouts in 110-degree heat? And then eat, like, a single avocado and handful of almonds?
I stayed up until sunrise, a tip those of my friends who fasted said would help me avoid feeling groggy, and ate my final meal just before daybreak. I woke up at 2 p.m. and reached for a glass of water out of habit. Nope. Not today.
Growing more parched by the hour, I made my way to the first day of boot camp around 5 p.m. The class was held outside in a walled area far from any male eye sat one of the many country clubs that dot Karachi’s wealthier neighborhoods. Too many women signed up to fit in the fitness coach’s gym, it turned out.
Though there were tents above the workout area, the shade barely provided respite from the kind of heat in which you can easily sweat through a shirt just by sitting outside for half an hour. Even before class started, women were already spraying their faces with water and standing in front of fans wiping sweat from their brows. I joined them.
The instructor was trim in contrast to most of the women taking her course. Her tone, though, was decidedly less body-positive than one might find in America. It was clear we were there first and foremost to lose weight and get skinnier, not healthier. The instructor encouraged us to target “tires” around our waists as we sweated in the heat, asking rhetorical questions like, “You don’t want to stay fat, do you?”
It was clear we were there first and foremost to lose weight and get skinnier, not healthier.
The workout itself was not that intense. In lieu of workout music deemed inappropriate for the Holy Month, our instructor yelled the benefits of everything we were doing into her headset microphone. “You haven’t been drinking water so we’re not going to push the cardio,” she said as we held minute-long planks for the second time in an hour. “But we’re working your muscles. It’s time to lose that tummy fat!”
I was dripping with sweat and losing stamina by the minute. Water was still hours away. My friend was right — I was naïve to think I could do this without having fasted before.
I went home in a daze after class. I still had an hour before sunset, but I began preparing iftar, the first meal after breaking one’s fast. Muslims traditionally open fast with a single date and a glass of water. I put them on my table and began counting down the minutes until sunset with my new Ramadan app.
When the sun finally went down and I had my cup of water and single date, I felt holier than I have in months. Surprised at my ability to resist temptation, I resolved to keep going for at least a week.
I was added to a WhatsApp group of my fellow bootcampers, a feature our trainer promised as part of the package. Our trainer encouraged us to share photos of our diet-friendly food and motivations. The group quickly became my daily source of entertainment. The Ramadan memes and dimly lit photos of sliced-up cucumber next to a shriveled chicken breast were oddly motivating; it helped to know I wasn’t alone in being hungry.
When the sun finally went down and I had my cup of water and single date, I felt holier than I have in months.
Along with their weight-loss goals, the women shared religious sentiments: “I just did sehri (the last meal before sunrise) according to the diet plan. InshAllah I’ll stick to it the whole month,” one woman wrote at 4 a.m., just after I choked down my unsweetened oatmeal. “Allah give us strength to do regular exercise,” said another.
On the second day of the boot camp, Ramadan schedule was in full effect across the city. People were waking up later and later, and businesses shifted their hours accordingly; fasting didn’t seem as hard. Sleeping half the day and staying up all night meant I only felt hunger for three hours of the day; by workout time, I wasn’t nearly as fatigued.
At one point during class, our instructor asked some of the women how much weight they had lost last Ramadan. The women stood as the coach asked them one by one how much weight they lost. “Forty-five pounds,” one said, to murmurs “MashAllah” from the group. Watching them bask in admiration from classmates who aspired to lose as much made me teary. Maybe it was the heat and hunger, but I was starting to believe.
Four days into the boot camp, my actual work as a newspaper stringer started to pick up. My easygoing Ramadan schedule of sleeping all morning and working all night wasn’t going to fly; I couldn’t change when and what time news events unfolded. I had to suck it up, wake up on time get to work instead of sleeping away fasting hours.
The concept of exercising, in a society with as much extreme poverty as Pakistan’s, is something reserved for the well-to-do. Though gym culture has become popular among the urban elite, going to a designated place to exercise isn’t a mainstream activity here. Publicly working out is infinitely harder for women in a society in which street harassment is an unfortunate but daily reality.
The majority of the women in the class were housewives, living in a neighborhood among the wealthiest in the city. The cost of the course — about $150 for about 12 classes — is on the upper budget limit by local standards, something my classmates lamented in the WhatsApp group. Post-camp conversations were almost always about finicky in-laws, demanding children, and finding reliable help. I was among the youngest, and one of a handful with job that could be demanding.
Maybe it was the heat and hunger, but I was starting to believe.
On the fifth day of working full days and fasting, I broke. It was unsafe to work in a literal heatwave without water, I reasoned. I decided I would abstain from food but allow myself water. By the end of the week, however, I was back to my usual eating habits, telling myself that doing my job was more important than my little experiment with faith.
I kept going to boot camp, hiding the fact that I was secretly eating in daylight hours. Islam allows for menstruating and pregnant women and people suffering from health conditions to eat and drink during the day. I feigned being on my period to sip water in between mountain climbers and crunches, but drinking water during the workout wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I imagined it would be on that first day, when it was all I could think about. I felt like a fraud, faking the devoutness of the people around me. Maybe others were faking, too, but the euphoric feeling of being a part of something disappeared.
Now, back to my usual state of slyly shirking my Islamic duties in a society that frowns upon shirking anything related to Islam, I’m still taken with the fleeting satisfaction that Ramadan boot camp gave me. A lot of the Western concepts folded into Ramadan appear to corrupt its intended purpose; I assumed Ramadan boot camp would follow course.
Instead, I found myself charmed by the group of devout women and their approach to fasting, enough so that I was inspired to give Ramadan a genuine shot for the first time in my adult life. Turns out the best way to reach a jaded, millennial, lapsed Muslim like me is by mixing religion with health trends that I’m far more willing to blindly accept.