Ramadan, a period of religious fasting for Muslims, began earlier this month. Sara Yasin critically reflects on the role of women during Ramadan – their duties, access to public religious spaces and their status within religion and family. She talks about how her personal experiences made her question and rethink Islam and its practices and how she learnt about Islam from a feminist perspective.
As a child, Ramadan was about competition, hunger, and sleepovers in the mosque. While my teachers at Al-Iman School, a private Islamic school in North Carolina, encouraged us to take advantage of some of the more spiritual components of Ramadan, I spent most of my hungry hours planning my Eid outfit or counting down the hours until I could stand in front of the fridge and plan a post-sunset feast.
Despite numerous poems rhyming ‘Ramadan’ with ‘Qur’an’, my teachers were unable to instil in us a more spiritual appreciation of the holy month. As I got older, Ramadan still involved thinking more about keeping up with a list of things I could not do, rather than the religious meditation and reflection that my teachers encouraged.
For most of my life, I tied Islam to following a regimented set of rules and orders. In the past few years, I have been reacquainting myself with Islam, and understanding it from a more critical perspective, rather than the black and white version I grew up with. I began to learn about an Islam that I felt I could connect to, through feminist readings of Islamic texts. In immersing myself in the works of scholars like Amina Wadud, Leila Ahmed, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and Fatima Mernissi, I began to see where the lines between religion and culture are crossed, and more importantly, opportunities to question the areas that seemed to leave out women.
I think it is pertinent to think about some of the issues faced by Muslim women in relation to Ramadan. My mother is a great example of this. She was saddled with the double burden of strengthening her relationship with God and tending to a house full of really hungry people. The work increased for all of the women I knew during Ramadan, and I think it is worthwhile to stop and think about how the burdens of a more gruelling social and spiritual calendar are distributed within the household.
While the whole family trudged through the day’s fast, my mother was also expected to be in the kitchen, creating an elaborate meal for us to have at sundown. I did not think twice about the fact that it was expected that my mother, who was also fasting, would slave away in order to ensure that we had our favourite Ramadan treats on the table. At the same time, my mother would also want to capitalise on the faith-based components of Ramadan, but time devoted to cleaning up after iftars and tending to us after a late night sugar rush interfered was most likely exhausting.
As I got older, it was expected that I would help her, rather than my brother who was allowed to fast without helping in the kitchen. Being the dramatic Ramadan queen that I was, I preferred watching cartoons, taking a nap, or exaggerating my hunger rather than helping my mother. Such an expectation was more grounded in cultural notions rather than religious ones, but the burden remained the same throughout my childhood.
Questioning the distribution of labour in a household is not exclusive to Muslim households. In retrospect, I think that would have been a crucial time to re-negotiate how we distributed domestic work throughout the household. Not just during Ramadan, but for the whole year.
Ramadan also meant more time at the mosque. Between taraweeh prayers, community iftars, and itikafs, I found myself constantly spending time in the carpeted halls of our local mosque, gossiping with my friends and eating copious amounts of candy. We were lucky to be able to attend our mosque, but spaces were still segregated according to gender.
There is a diverse range of experiences that women have in mosques. In parts of some countries, such as Syria, women are unable to attend any prayers at mosques at all. I think that Ramadan can be a great opportunity to revisit a dialogue about women’s access to spaces in the mosque. Though it may be controversial, looking at questions of segregation and leadership, and having a healthy debate about such matters is important when so many people are clamouring to spend more time at the mosque.
While Ramadan may be associated with hunger, I hope that it can be an opportunity for more candid dialogue about these topics in the Muslim community.
Sara Yasin graduated from LSE’s Gender Institute in 2010. She regularly contributes to Muslimah Media Watch, as well as other feminist blogs. When she is not writing, she enjoys feeding her friends, watching American television programs from the seventies, and trying to make the internet like her. Her twitter can be found here: http://twitter.com/missyasin