For a lot of Muslims around the world, the Holy Month of Ramadan is a time for increased spirituality, self-reflection and worship. It brings great joy and opportunity for reform. Observing our fast from sunrise to sunset, we practice self-restraint and increased awareness of God. For many of us Muslim women, however, it is a drastically different experience.
It is the norm in Muslim households for mothers to take on all the duties that relate to cooking and cleaning. It is the mothers who rise an hour before the rest of the family to prepare the dawn meal. It is the mothers who spend hours in the kitchen during the day preparing the sunset meal. The mothers aren’t like you and me, resting our bodies for the duration of the fast, moving only to perform the daily prayers and having the luxury of added worship at the time of our choosing.
But why is it that we are so comfortable with a single person carrying the weight of the month, rarely asking for help nor being offered any?
There seems to be a belief so deeply entrenched in Muslim culture that renders us oblivious to this inequality: not only do we believe that this is the role of a mother, but we also believe that her performance reflects the method in which she is obtaining deeds that will ultimately allow her to enter Heaven. We often quote the Hadith of the Prophet Mohammad (s.a.w.s.) who said that Heaven is beneath the feet of mothers. I do not doubt the words of the Prophet, nor do I have the right to doubt them. But it is often this Hadith that is used as the defence, explanation and reassurance of the strenuous tasks that women take on independently during Ramadan. I firmly believe that the purpose of the Hadith was not to allow Muslim men to ignore their share of the work at home.
Relatedly, we also share the now well-known quote that informs us of the ‘status’ of women in Islam:
“When she is a daughter, she opens the door of Jannah for her father. When she is a wife, she completes half of the Deen of her husband. When she is a mother, Heaven lies under her feet…”Shiekh Akram Nadawi
The issue is the ease with which the line is blurred between appreciating a woman for the favours she performs and believing that it is her role to serve other people. It is often this line that is not only blurred for men but also women. In this respect, Shiekh Nadawi’s quote is extremely problematic as it prompts us to view the status of a woman in relation to the people in her life – particularly the men in her life. These perspectives we have of women in Islam pave the way for the inequality that exists in Ramadan, and also outside it. It is not the role of a Muslim woman to serve their families, including men of their families during this Holy Month. It has never been their role. It is important to completely understand that.
I think it is also important to understand the universal experience amongst Muslim women during Ramadan, one that brings them discomfort and shame surrounding having their menstrual period and being excused from fasting.
The first Ramadan that I experienced with my period I must have been around 14 years old. I remember being pressed by my mother to make my meals, put them on a tray and run quickly to my room lest a man in the house sees me with food. If you’ve ever been in a Muslim household around the sunset mealtime, you will appreciate that it is incredibly obvious when someone has not performed their prayers, they would be exceptionally early to the dinner table and then, you just know.
So I also vaguely remember standing in my room around the maghrib (sunset) prayer time, estimating the length of time it usually takes me to pray, afraid of what the men in my household would think if they even had the slightest suspicion that I was not fasting today. This might seem outdated to many people, but I can assure you this ‘period taboo’ as I like to call it still exists today. This tweet was posted in April this year:
And it almost surely still exists in Muslim countries around the world.
Throughout the year, there is little sign that the women of the house bleed from their sexual organs monthly, except the occasional plastic from a menstrual pad that falls unnoticed on the bathroom floor. During Ramadan however, the occasion is much more obvious. Fathers and brothers are confronted with the reality that not only do they know the woman they are related to is menstruating, but they know that she knows they know she is menstruating. Disaster, I know.
This issue seems to be part of a greater complexity that is shame around women’s bodies and their normal function. The tense atmosphere stems from the lack of effort being put into normalising women’s bodies, as well as the need to avoid disturbing the comfort of men.
We are much too evolved to allow the convenience of men to trump the pressing issues that women face. It is about time we prioritise the comfort of a woman and take their physical and mental well-being into account as well.