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Monday, August 2, 2021

Vegan Muslim: How to navigate family gatherings on Eid Al Adha

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Meat and dairy are included in almost every cuisine, making it hard for some Muslim vegans to discover alternatives, especially on occasions like Eid.

Being a vegan can be quite a challenge when there are limited food options at grocery stores and restaurants – but let’s face it, convincing your Muslim family that you have opted for vegan lifestyle is a lot harder.

It’s Eid Al-Adha and families around the Muslim world are gathering to enjoy a variety of dishes at a shared dinner table. As its name suggests, it is the “Eid of Sacrifice” where Muslims slaughter sheep to to feast together while also distributing its meat to those in need.

For 21-year-old Rawda Alyafei, a Muslim vegan, Eid is an occasion in which she faces yet more jokes from her family about her food preferences as well as pressure from her grandmother who insists on her eating meals she has cooked for the family.

“It’s the whole same thing every year,” Alyafei told Doha News.

A dedicated vegan, Alyafaei dropped meat and dairy as an experiment a decade ago when she was in eighth grade. At the time, she was struggling with anorexia and found herself unable to eat proper cooked food. Without evening knowing of the concept of veganism, she decided on aw vegan diet.

“I thought it was just an awesome diet. I think I got comfortable, which is crazy to say here in Qatar because it’s hard being vegan here,” she said, saying that her body has now adapted to her lifestyle.

Read also: Drinking coffee reduces the risk of liver disease: study

At first, she found herself socially isolated at family gatherings – a difficult position for Muslims whose core values centre around socialising with relatives.

“At first, [being isolated] used to hurt a lot and my grandma would even try to make me drink the meat broth instead. Like no, that’s not how it works,” she laughed.

“I sound so westernised to them,” Alyafei added.

In the Arab culture, the dinner table symbolises a lot more than a mere sitting area and has it has its own etiquette and traditions that vary depending on the country or region. However, the varying traditions are held together by a common thread: it is considered disrespectful to not join family or guests at the table, refuse food offered by the hosts, or even leave the table before everyone has finished eating.

Torn between decades-old traditions and her newly-found food preferences, Alyafei opted for the middle ground and started bringing her own vegan meals to gatherings to maintain that all-important relationship with her family.

“Sometimes I don’t sit where they sit because I’m not gonna eat and there’s a lot of questions, a lot of jokes and things that drive me crazy,” she said, adding that she was treated differently at one point for missing gatherings to avoid such confrontations.

But the inability to understand her choices trickled out of the family home too.

Alyafei says she used to be bullied for being vegan in school. Her fellow students would regularly take her lunch box and throw it away, and on one occasion, a girl forced a piece of chicken nugget in her mouth as other girls held her down.

Read also: We need to talk about eating disorders and Ramadan

“They didn’t like the fact that I was vegan and they weren’t educated enough. They’d tell me about how it’s halal to eat meat and ‘you not eating meat makes you an atheist’,” she said.

Years later, veganism was introduced to the world and soon gained increasing popularity. Notably, some students at Alyafaei’s school also shifted to the same diet themselves.

“The thing that hurt me the most was when veganism became a trend. The same exact people who bullied me in school went vegan,” she said.

But despite the popularity of veganism, convincing her family that she cannot adjust her dietary restrictions remains a work in progress, even a decade later. So, as a daughter of an Arab family, Alyafaei decided to look for vegan-friendly food within the same cuisine.

“A lot of our food is accidentally vegan, like hummus, kushari, mahshi and I’d eat that only to make them feel like I’m part of the family. I feel like the most important thing is that I’m at the dinner table with them. It means a lot to them [her family],” she said.

While at university, the she decided to search for easily available vegan alternatives to make up for the limited options available on campus. For many, veganism was synonymous with raw vegetables and salads.

“I felt bad at first, because up until high school I was eating healthy,” she said.

Tips for Muslim vegans

As someone who has been a Muslim vegan for a decade and experiencing countless Ramadans and Eids, Alyafei is keen on sharing tips on how to participate in family gatherings while maintaining dietary preferences.

The main step would be to try to educate family members about alternatives that they are familiar with and to be open to options available at the dinner table.

In her case, she started eating rice separately from the meat, which was a key step to finding a middle ground that works in her favour as well as her family’s.

“I went back to being their favourite member of the family…if they see you eat the same food they eat, it’s easier for you to bond with them,” she said.

Another tip that she thought was effective was bringing a vegan dish that is still part of the same cuisine that everyone else can enjoy too..

“Always bring a dish that is accidentally vegan with you, don’t bring anything that you know people don’t eat,” said Alyafei.

A third tip is consciously having friendly conversations about veganism with the family while showing them that they can still enjoy the same food that is cooked on a daily basis.

“Even now they’re asking me about the vegan diet,” Alyafei said, adding that two of her cousins who once mocked her diet became vegan after noticing the changes in her skin and health.

The 21-year-old also tapped into misconceptions that are often linked to vegans.

Among those myths is that vegans are arrogant and look down on those who do not follow the same diet, which she tackled by rejoining her family at the dinner table.

“I want people to understand that it’s just food. How am I better than anyone? If you think you’re better than people, you won’t survive family gatherings,” she said.

Thanks to more extreme vegan activism, which include spilling fake blood at restaurants or other public acts of sabotage to raise awareness on animal cruelty, vegans are often ridiculed for their “guilt-tripping” approach.

Separately, Muslims are also often attacked online by vegans and Islamophobes for slaughtering sheep, as per Eid tradition

“Don’t guilt-trip them into the diet. I used to do that, I used to make them really guilty. Try to avoid that approach…you cannot force people,” she advised.

“I think there’s a misconception about vegans that they’re aggressive. I know a lot of vegans on social media who talk badly about people who kill the sheep during Eid Al Adha and I hate that. That’s not the approach you should go with.”


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