I’ve always been a little hesitant and unsure of myself. When I started telling people that I planned on studying abroad for the Fall 2019 semester in Madrid, I could tell that they were worried. I mean, how was I going to survive alone? I wasn’t fluent in Spanish, I didn’t know anyone else that was in my program, and I don’t exactly have a plethora of common sense – I’m more book-smart. I think that part of it was that they didn’t want me to get my hopes up. Studying abroad could be a really great experience or a really terrible one, and there wasn’t room for anything in between.
But, I was determined to prove them wrong. I always have been. Ever since I was little I’ve always felt that people saw my capabilities as one-sided. I could do this but never that. To me, it seemed like an expectation thing. No one expected me to be so independent and sturdy, especially when I appeared in front of them as fragile or sensitive.
The truth is that I had never been given the chance to prove myself in this capacity. The second that I took too long or wasn’t doing something precisely the way that someone else would, they took over. And, as a result, I became apprehensive, kind of shy, and extremely nervous.
However, it turns out that I was right. I had been largely independent all along, and studying abroad was a great idea. I slowly realized that I could do anything I set my mind to, even this, all the while holding on tightly to my emotional tendencies. I learned a lot about myself while basking in the Mediterranean sun.
During my time in Madrid, I met people and made connections in ways that are indescribable. I don’t know if it is because I finally found myself in a situation in which I was free from implicit restraints and boundaries or if I became a product of my surroundings. But, I am sure of at least one thing, that being that I was entering a moment in which I was young enough to still have the ignorant belief that nothing mattered, but also wise enough to know that everything mattered much more than it had ever before. There were so many things, and so many people, clawing at me and insisting for my attention, and I finally let go.
For the first time I acknowledged the positivism of this sweet, even blissful, point in my life—one that I may never get again. So, I gave in to the extremities. In doing so, the whole world opened up. I found security in empathy, I learned about ambition, self-awareness, and I felt genuine longing for the first time. I spent days dancing in streets that were once touched by Goya, Ernest Hemingway, and Velasquez. I read poems by Pablo Neruda on the metro and I ate TONS of churros con chocolate.
What I found to be the most pivotal about my experience in Madrid, though, would be living in a home-stay. This is where I spent the most time, had the most laughs, and learned the most about myself. The day after landing in Madrid I met my host family and moved into their home. While they didn’t speak any English at all, and whatever Spanish I did know I forgot the second I opened my mouth, we managed to work through it.
I knew I wanted to build a relationship with them, but before I could do that, I had to conquer my own confidence battle. I had to remind myself that yes, they were strangers with whom I would be living with for months, but I was also a stranger to them. Frankly, we were all in the same boat. Eventually, I got used to their habits, learned their family traditions, and studied their culture until I felt like I belonged there. They made me feel like I was as much a Madrileño as they are.
At dinner, my host parents would always ask about my day, my classes, and if I was up to anything fun. On the weekends, they would recommend countless restaurants or art museums to my friends and I, and then ask me if I liked it the next day. They even comforted me when I felt overwhelmed or insecure. What I appreciated the most, however, is that they actually listened to my stories, which I am sure that I told in broken Spanish, and always seemed interested.
We really grew to love and care for one another. In those four short months I am sure that they watched me grow exponentially. I truly became myself and started to feel comfortable in my own skin. Plus, I came out being able to speak and communicate in Spanish light-years beyond my ability from when I first arrived in Madrid.
My memories from this time in my life are whole, and they always will be whole. I’m finally able to show off my independence and I’m never turning back. This just goes to show that a little bit of introspection and determination could go a long way. Of course, I was scared to be alone and so far away but I knew that it was what I needed. Once I convinced myself to just rip off the band-aid my possibilities for personal growth became endless.
My OBGYN stared at me in shock. After confirming that I wasn’t pregnant, she was truly surprised that someone who hadn’t had a period for 10 months would actually want to take the steps required to recover it.
I felt uncomfortable, so I made a thinly veiled joke about how pregnancy tests were expensive.
I walked out of the office that day with a prescription for a hormonal blood panel, an appointment for an ultrasound, and my skin feeling too tight. The appointment had been entirely too much talking about my body, which I did not like. I was told I was underweight, an evaluation with which I did not agree. I was also told that I was a woman, which I was uncertain about.
After a barrage of tests, an invasive ultrasound, and a confession of under-eating, I came away with a diagnosis: hypothalamic amenorrhea. Months of having an eating disorder had put me so far into ‘survival mode’ that my body had thought my reproductive organs so non-critical to survival that they’d been effectively turned off.
A part of me was rueful over the achievement: I’d managed to destroy a part of me that I couldn’t control. This was the part of me that meant I was always told to ‘act like a lady’.
Unfortunately, the lack of menstruating also heralded health problems. For people with uteruses, a functioning reproductive system can be important to your everyday health. The hormonal shifts during a person’s cycle can impact insulin sensitivity or even help you lift more weight. That means that menstrual cycle can actually be used as a tool to get stronger.
Even if I wasn’t interested in my uterus, I was interested in getting strong.
My doctor helped me devise a strategy to get better. It involved lowering how much I worked out, increasing how much food I ate – and enlisting a therapist to make sure those processes happened safely.
In the past, I’d called my period the ‘red rabbit’. I could scare it off with a hard run, or a bout of stress. Now, I saw it as something that was inherently me – something that my body needed to do to stay healthy. It wasn’t something to be scared away, but something to be celebrated.
But now, as I feebly tried to recapture my period, I had to answer an important question: who was I?
For much of my childhood, I hid my body behind baggy pants and polo shirts. I owned several too-tight sports bras that would flatten my chest and I deliberately avoided pink like the plague. I used teenage anger to fight against my own femininity. I associated it with my abusive mother and tried to be anything she wasn’t. I wasn’t a woman like her. I defined myself by my maleness.
But now, I was chasing my period like a dream. I was confused.
As my hormones shifted, my priorities did as well. When my period came back, I welcomed it as a friend, instead of an adversary. I started to express my masculinity in different ways. I kept lifting and putting on muscle mass. I cut my hair into a short pixie cut that I could spike into a mohawk. The obvious portrayal of those values made me feel safe enough to start wearing earrings and bold makeup.
When my period came back, I celebrated it by maxing out my deadlifts and flexing in a mirror.
I reached out to my friends and confided in them that I was confused. I told them about the femaleness and maleness in me. I didn’t think they fit, but they had to because I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t want to be confined by gender roles. I needed help. My friends simply smiled and said, “Welcome home.”
I didn’t need to be one gender or the other and I didn’t need to choose. I could be both.
Now, I often have my hair cut short. I flex, often. And, I am even comfortable in a dress and makeup from time to time. I sign my name “Mx. Leach” and revel in my “theys and thems.”
My favorite picture is of me arrogantly smiling into the camera while proving to all of my male friends that I have larger biceps than them, while my poor fiance is trying to get me to put my arm down so for once there’s a nice picture of all of us – but I do not care because I am wholly ‘me’ in the picture.
Apart from the fact that the devil’s locked up, we score even more good deeds on helping those in need during this month, more than any other time of the year. Clearly, that’s the case – Ramadan’s the month when every day is a fundraiser, and every email you get is a follow-up to that fundraiser.
Long gone are the days that you had to walk twenty feet in the mosque to stuff your dollar bills into the decaying wooden box labeled “donations” with a first grader’s handwriting. But come on… shouldn’t we be doing more than that? Can’t we like, actually get involved? Am I crazy for suggesting such a thing?
I know you’re probably asking, “Well, what can I do between the iftars filled with aunties picking apart my weight and suhoors where I drink so much water I feel like I’ll explode?”
Or not – I’d probably be asking that, though. Sue me.
What can we do to make a real impact in this crazy world, one that lasts beyond that one-time donation during Jummah? Sure, bedazzled fundraising that lands you a picture in on your local new channel’s website is fun, but there are way better ways to make an impact on the world. Get ready to totally change your thirty days this year, because I’ve got some good suggestions coming atcha.
1. Host an interfaith iftar that’s open to everyone, because – let’s be honest – an interfaith suhoor might just be too ambitious
Perhaps one of the greatest ways one can leave a lasting impact is through interfaith iftars, which are cropping up more and more as the years go by. They often lead to learning experiences, not just for the non-Muslims attending, but Muslims themselves as they learn about the participants and their religious beliefs. They often help build bridges between people and create allies.
I’ve attended and hosted a few interfaith iftars myself, and they are always a great success, whether they were small ones inside my home or ones with over a hundred participants at a community center.
2. Don’t just feed the hungry – sustain them!
Ramadan is, after all, a month that reminds us what it feels like to go hungry. But it’s not just about passing out a few hot meals for a few hours and going about your day – it’s also about also interacting with the ones you are helping and showing interest in them. It’s your chance to remind those in need that they do matter and they are not forgotten.
3. Donate that liquid (red) gold you got running through you
It is important to note that while many of us sign up to donate blood when tragic events occur, more often than not, that surplus of blood will often be tossed due to it expiring over time.
At the same time, it’s a constant that we have a dire shortage of blood because people assume there’s more than enough already. That is why it is best to donate at times when there isn’t much going on.
Keep in mind that while donating blood is permissible while fasting, it might not be the greatest idea – especially during the summer fasts in which the days are extra long, hot, and humid, thus leaving us physically exhausted and weak – I mean, I did pass out one time after donating blood – and I wasn’t even fasting! Perhaps signing up for a donation (or a few donations!) post-Ramadan (or post-iftar!) is the best idea (and by perhaps, I mean it’s definitely a good idea).
4. Teach someone how to do something – but don’t risk your life doing it!
One of the most rewarding feelings in the world is being able to teach someone how to do something. Do you know someone who doesn’t know how to read? Do you have an uncle who would like to practice English with someone, without feeling embarrassed? Does your annoying little pesky but adorable cousin not know how to ride a bike? Are you well-versed in something that someone you know would like more information about?
Reach out and pass on the gift of knowledge. They’ll never forget it and will pass this knowledge on, creating a chain that you helped start.
Sidenote: I’ve taught three people how to drive, and each time, it’s an absolutely terrifying experience – I’ve seen my life flash before my eyes more than once. Proceed with caution. It’s much easier teaching someone how to ride a bike.
5. Read the stories of those around you, and make it a point to share your own, too
It’s no secret that we’re all composed of our own stories – I mean, there’s a reason I love writing. Stories, whether one is reading or sharing them, create a bond between people, as we find that we are similar in many ways – despite all of our differences. As a writer, I’ve had countless women (and men) reach out to me thanking me for telling my story, for it made them less alone because they were going through something similar.
And it’s not just about writing stories or reading stories about who is similar to us.
Stories can help shift paradigms and help change countless minds – even the minds of the most racist, oppressive, or sexist people. In fact, perhaps the greatest success I’ve ever had through telling stories is by explaining how Islamophobia has affected my life to a man who was adamant about his belief that all Muslims are terrorists and Islam is a religion of violence.
He and I are actually good friends today, and he speaks out regularly against Islamophobia now.
You have a headache, your stomach is eating itself, your mouth is dry, you’re having caffeine withdrawals, and you are super hangry… and it’s only 9 am! I’ve seriously gone hulk mode while fasting – and it has not been pretty.
Not being cranky and exhausted during Ramadan can be hard, but something as simple as a smile can change not only someone else’s day but your own, too! Guess what? When you actively try to smile and be positive, you actually end up being more positive. We all know positivity, especially when it comes to smiling, is contagious – there’s a reason our Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) encouraged us to do it.
7. Change those nasty habits that hurt our Earth, and do it before it’s too late
I’m not going to lie: I have habits that I’m ashamed of, like sometimes not looking for a recycling bin when I’m out or using way too much paper on accident while fighting my printer to print something correctly. I also have a baby on the way, but can’t for the life of me convince my husband to go with cloth diapers, instead of disposable ones. But I do try to change my bad habits, even if it takes a few tries to get it going (maybe by the time the next baby comes around, I can convince him…)!
Whether it’s something as huge as revamping your lifestyle completely to produce as little waste as possible or implementing little changes such as recycling, making sure your lights are out when they should be, and watching how much water you use, every little thing counts when it comes to our world.
The Earth and our future generations will definitely appreciate it.
8. Make sure those who have reverted aren’t lonely this Ramadan
Holidays and months like Ramadan can be extremely lonely and difficult for Muslim reverts. Suhoors and iftars alone can be especially hard, as their family and friends may not take part in the religious practices of Islam or even understand them.
Personally, I’ve been incredibly blessed to having had experienced Ramadan in a packed house for nearly all of my life, so I never gave this a thought. It wasn’t until my friend told me just how incredibly lonely she felt eating alone every dawn and sunset the first few years after she reverted that reality hit. Ever since then, I’ve made sure to extend month-long invitations to my Muslim friends (reverts or not).
Reaching out to a Muslim that you know – whether in school, work, or your local mosque – can make a huge impact for not only them but you, too. Nobody wants to spend Ramadan and Eid alone.
9. Don’t forget our cute, fuzzy friends – I’m pretty sure this won’t be too hard for ya!
It is no secret that Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was quite the animal lover (especially of cats!) and encouraged us to take care of animals around us. Since adopting a pet can be tough for some, volunteering with a shelter or fostering a soon-to-be pet is another option. Something as simple as showing up a few times a week/month to an animal shelter to hug and cuddle the lonely but lovely furbabies can make a huge difference as they patiently wait for their forever humans.
I volunteered at a cat shelter as a senior in high school – which was forever ago, I admit. To this day, though, barely anything beats the feeling of being bombarded by cats and kittens that just want to love on you for a few hours because they’ve had a rough life. I also got bit by a grumpy, obese cat, but that’s beside the point. Tread with caution!
10. Cuddle adorable NICU babies that just want to be held (and fart and puke on you).
Sure, you may be puked and peed on, but trust me, it’s so worth it! Seriously, what’s better than the new baby smell and their little sounds as they cuddle into you?
Many babies are given up for adoption every year, and a good portion of them happen to be preemie and/or NICU babies that are born addicted to drugs or suffering from health issues. There are also babies that need to be cuddled while their parents, unfortunately, have to tend to their careers due to the lack of maternity/paternity benefits across our country.
This is where you can step in and cuddle these babies for hours, providing them the comfort and other benefits that will last a lifetime. Keep in mind that they’re not the only ones that benefit – cuddling babies is good for us as well.
11. Don’t forget the (bigger) little ones, and work with children locally and internationally!
One thing we are always reminded of is to always remember the less fortunate – especially orphans. Working with organizations like Penny Appeal USA, who specifically work with orphans through their Orphankind program, is an amazing way to get this initiative going. Quite literally, you can transform the lives of marginalized, disadvantaged orphans, giving them a better future – and it’s so easy to get involved.
I can tell you from personal experience that catching the glimmer of hope and excitement in the eyes of our future generation as you help them take care of the world and each other is the most rewarding experience ever.
12. Clean up a park/beach/neighborhood/pretty much every place that matters
Do you want to know the one thing most natural parks and treasures have in common? There is trash everywhere. Even in the Grand Canyon – probably our greatest national treasure in America!
While you may not see much litter in your local neighborhood or park, larger public places like national parks and beaches are increasingly becoming egregiously littered with human junk. This results – not only in the marring of the beauty of these places – but it also poses real dangers to the animals at these locations. We need to preserve these treasures – not just for ourselves, but for future generations, too.
13. When’s the last time you stepped into your … local library?
I’m not going to get personal and ask you when you actually read a book last (hey, since I’m always reading my butt off for my grad school classes, the last thing I want to do is read for pleasure during my time off, unfortunately), but do you even know where your closest public library is?
Libraries are increasingly losing their funding, thus resulting in fewer bodies to help things keep running smoothly. The super dedicated workers and volunteers are often run ragged as they try to keep up with the demand of the public, and, unfortunately, when they suffer, so do our libraries – whether it’s because of shorter hours, fewer resources, or cutting back on events that could push literacy rates higher.
This is where you can step in – even if it’s just walking around shushing loud teens or figuring out where that one book that’s been misplaced for decades is! Not only would you make a strong impact, but you’ll have fun, too.
14. Put your magic fingers to use and get crafty – the good crafty, not the bad kind.
Okay, so this would probably be the one thing I won’t be able to do on this list, because I’m the most uncoordinated person… like, ever.
But for those who aren’t hindered by the klutz gene, there is something you can do from the comfort of your own home during those long Ramadan days – and that’s getting crafty! There are countless organizations always on the hunt for hats, blankets, and scarves for people in need. Are you good at knitting blankets? You can make some for NICU babies and the homeless. And hats are great for adults and children who are losing their hair due to chemotherapy.
Heck, there are even places that take teeny, tiny sweaters for birds who have lost their feathers (and yes, they’re SO ADORABLE).
15. Put your tech-savvy self to good use and bridge that digital divide
I’m going to be real here, I may not be the most tech-savvy person (apparently, I can’t do old people stuff like knit or young people stuff like coding). If you are, though, there are several ways you can help your local and national community with your savvy skills.
(In all honesty, I plan on asking my software-engineering-degree-seeking husband to perhaps teach me how to code, so I can volunteer my time with local communities to bring their technology game to a higher level).
Lower-income districts, unfortunately, have a lot to combat when it comes to technology and digital education in their schools, thus creating a divide between future generations from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Once I learn to code, I’m definitely joining efforts that Penny Appeal USA is having to help “Bridge the Digital Divide.” In this program, you can literally work with low-income district schools to bridge the gap between specific groups of children in digital education – and yes, you can volunteer with them even if you’re as technologically deficient like I am!
16. Survivors of domestic violence need us in more ways than one
Women who have escaped from an abusive relationship often do not have anybody to turn to, due to being controlled for so long. As a result, they often end up in shelters or with organizations that have a huge need for volunteers.
Women should be lifting one another up, and what better way to do that than to help those of us who have hit the bottom? Due to dynamics of abusive relationships, these women can be extremely insecure, scared, and unsure about their futures, and something as simple as being a supporting presence can make a huge difference.
Also, it’s important to note here that usually, everyone benefits: one of my closest friendships was formed when I volunteered to simply listen to stories of DV survivors and provide comfort to them.
17. Create opportunities where people can talk their heads off
Perhaps one of the most successful events while I was at the Harvard Divinity School MSA was my “Warm Fuzzies with the HDS Muzzies” event, in which people were welcome to join us, eat snacks, have tea, and ask very personal questions (trust me, they took us up on this offer quite happily!).
Hosting an event (even if it’s just a forum online) that encourages dialogue between different types of people can do wonders, all while making a lasting impact. Don’t simply limit things to talking about faith and spirituality – encourage those within the forum to bring in their perspectives on issues of race, gender, and global inequalities.
It’ll be a pleasant reminder of just how similar we all are when we can discover intersections within ourselves and each other through frank dialogue.
18. Spend time with those who have been forgotten by society, because they need it.
There is very little doubt that there is a certain stigma when it comes to those within our prison system. Due to this, they are often forgotten by members from all walks of life.
Volunteering in a prison setting can include providing education services, spiritual services, and mindfulness training (more specifically, ways in which anger can be rerouted and peace can be achieved). For those inmates that will eventually be able to work their way back into society, the way they were treated and resources they were able to access while in prison will make a huge difference in determining what direction they will eventually go.
You can quite literally be the person that helps them choose the path they take in the fork in the road, literally helping them change their life for the better.
19: Quench someone’s thirst – and your own – to make a difference!
Perhaps one of the most ironic things about our world is that even though there is water literally everywhere, there are so many people who are detrimentally affected by a lack of clean water resources. And this includes people in our own nation – not just people across the world. Therefore, one can even travel overseas or stay local in order to help build infrastructure to help bring clean water access to communities.
Penny Appeal USA has a specific program that focuses on bringing thirst relief to communities in impoverished areas across the world. Their focus is not just to bring clean drinking water to the areas that need it, though, because let’s be real: you can make more of a difference if you set up a community to get clean water on their own after you leave.
This Ramadan, volunteer and make it a point to help build wells and infrastructure that’ll ensure sanitation, hygiene, and education, in order to promote healthy societies that grow as a result. On top of that, we all know that the lack of clean water affects women and girls the greatest, so you’ll be able to work to ensure that these issues no longer affect women and girls like you with these trips.
20. You don’t have to fundraise to build someone a house – you can totally help build one!
Did you know that it’s actually not that hard to build a house – especially with a large group of people who have the same focus?
Remember, Ramadan is not just about remembering those who aren’t able to eat, but also those in need of housing. Organizations that focus on building homes for the less fortunate bring together people to build houses, not only locally but also across the world. You have the choice to stay put or indulge in your wanderlust, while also making a difference (although it probably is much easier to stay local during Ramadan so your mom can stuff you with parathas and curry for iftar).
Just keep in mind that we’re hoping you can do a better job than the guy above (and wear a helmet just in case you can’t!).
21. There’s so much injustice going on – get involved in a social justice organization or campaign – MAKE YOURSELF HEARD!
While I personally focus on racism, peace advocacy, women’s rights, and Islamophobia, there are so many movements that one can get involved with.
The possibilities on how and where to get involved are endless, but the point is to make yourself heard. Do not let fear hold you back. Your opinions and things you care about truly matter, and the more you speak and educate people about them, the more your voice will influence others to do the same. You can write letters to your local and national leaders to fight for certain issues, sign petitions, and make statements across social media and publicly.
You have the right to free speech and speaking out about social justice issues is, therefore, your right.
22. Take some of your (young) time and put it towards spending some much-needed time with the elderly
I know, I know, I’m so tired of hearing the “back in my day” stories sometimes (and I’m so scared that I’ll start saying that, too!), but the elderly are oft-forgotten when it comes to volunteering our time or resources.
Imagine living your entire life and loving so many people, only to end up stuck in a retirement home with no visitors. Many retirement homes encourage people to volunteer their time and do something as simple as listening to those “back in my day” stories or providing companionship. Plus, you can totally kill a few birds with one stone here: you can host an interfaith iftar with an elderly person or community, create dialogue, and help people in need of a friend.
23. Change yourself – and change the world – all year round
This is the most important one of all.
Ramadan is a time where one just does not take care of others and gives to charity. It’s also a time in which much introspection takes place, while you’re helping those in need.
In order to make a lasting impact on the world, one must change herself from within first. That’s not to say that after years of trying to change the world that I’m perfect. I’m just in a much better place with myself that I wouldn’t’ve been if I hadn’t worked to make my positive footprint in this world. After all of that, I’ve learned that when you exude positivity, openness, compassion, and empathy, people – and the world – pick up on it and reflect it back to you – while also reflecting it upon others.
You matter, and you shape the world. All year round.