Women’s Voices at Ramadan

By: Grainne Rhuad

In the community I grew up in there is an Islamic Center and there are quite a few followers of Islam.  However, up until the shocking events of Sept. 11, most people in our community didn’t give much thought to Islam in their daily lives.  In our culture we tend not to think outside of our daily experiences until we have to.  There had always been good feelings toward our Muslim neighbors.  We showed up and helped them raise their Masjid in our town and a neighboring one.  They came and kept watch over the local Synagogue when it was being vandalized by a white pride group.   And yet beyond the day to day transactions we didn’t think about religious and cultural differences.  It wasn’t until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, that our community even thought to include Islam in its discussion about faith, discrimination and cultural competence.

Increasingly our news outlets have been reaching out and covering the personal side of Islam.  This seems especially true this year when we have had so much controversy around things like book burnings and Mosques in Manhattan neighborhoods.

One thing I wanted to know about but didn’t see a lot of coverage of was what the daily life of a housewife, mother and woman like me is like during Ramadan.  It just wasn’t covered.  I didn’t know whether nobody thought to ask or whether there was some sort of religious injunction against talking about women’s feelings around matters of spirituality.  I had grown up like so many American with visions of The Nation of Islam in my head; Women who didn’t meet your eye, quiet women.  What I wanted to know more about was a modern American Muslim woman, so I asked someone I knew.

Maya Salem has been a contributor for us in the past.  She is a mother, a wife a daughter and a follower of Islam.  She was kind enough to humor me and my questions and even add some of her own direction in between, when she thought I needed to know more.

Maya leads off by offering this definition of the fast:

We fast for thirty days. What does it mean to fast? We CANNOT eat or drink anything at all from sunrise to sunset. Not only that, we must not engage nor think about sexual activity, smoking nor drugs. It is a total disciplinary cause. Why do we fast? Simple, to feel with the poor and hungry. You can’t say that you understand a poor person without being poor. You must experience it. This would help us to know firsthand what poverty feels like. It leaves no room for pleasurable thoughts; it is a constant battle of hunger pangs and weakness. It leaves a person grateful for what he has, and an accomplished sense of appreciation. We also realize that we are not and never were better than anyone. Humans are equal and not measured by one’s weight in treasure. Fasting encourages charity, humbleness and awareness that people truly do experience hardships. Now I have about two more weeks to go, and the toll of eating at night has taken its weight on me. Yes, I feel fatigued, dehydrated and weak, but overly thankful. I can resume a food-full life, but others can’t. Please give charity and drop food off at the food banks when you can. When you give, it always finds its way back to you.

GR-How does Ramadan affirm or not affirm your faith?

M.S.-The fact that I am not fasting alone strengthens my mission.  What I mean by that is to see that so many Muslims actually commit to fasting during Ramadan makes it feel right.  It’s contagious.  It makes me proud, and assures my faith.  There is no question as to whether I will participate or not.  It’s an obligation to which regardless of my current strength in spirituality, I will submit.  There is no material gain from it.  Ramadan is a test of endurance, discipline, compassion, spirituality and overall patience.  Ramadan is also a month where generosity is a non-stop agenda.  Regard others as you would like to be regarded.  Of course this type of behavior should be practiced on a daily basis, however, this month enforces it and people are more likely to comply.

G.R-How hard is it on the women during Ramadan with the cooking and guests showing up, etc.

M.S. – It’s actually the contrary of hard.  The beautiful thing about Ramadan is that everyone (men and women) has empathy towards each other so they’re willing to lend a helping hand.  We’re all fasting and exhausted, so we understand one another.  One finds pleasure in cooking, and offering meals to people that are saymeen (fasting).  I look forward to having guests; it’s an honor to have them break their fast at my table.  The only difficult thing about the cooking is I can’t taste how well I have spiced the food.  I don’t want anyone eating an over salted roast you know.

I wanted to also mention and emphasize on the fact that we take turns cooking a large meal and sending it to a local mosque or shelter to provide food for the needy.  Anyone and everyone are invited to feast at the mosque regardless of belief.  Together as a community we ensure that there is a free meal provided for every day of Ramadan.  I try to encourage non-Muslims to visit a local masjid in order to gain an understanding of what it’s like, plus you can try some good food.

Breaking the Fast-Photo by Maya Salem

G.R.-Do you see it as harder to practice in America where people tend to see things and gift giving holidays?

M.S.-Well it can be difficult for some I would imagine, but I haven’t faced any difficulty.  It all depends on the community and non-Muslim understanding of the month.  It also depends on how one handles it.  Not everyone is as oblivious as I am.  During Ramadan people are actually very generous with monetary and material gifts. Especially at the end of Ramadan, the Eid.  The early Muslims used to decorate their homes with branches and leaves from olive trees.  We’re supposed to differentiate Ramadan from any other time of the year.  Kind of like Christmas. (As I understand it)   But I rarely see American Muslims who do decorate their homes for this special occasion.  Every year I have plans to decorate and make my holiday obvious, but I have yet to do so.

Ramadan is different in America, unless you’re at the masjid participating in a break-fast pot luck, or daily taraweeh prayer, you don’t really feel the jingle of the holy month.  In contrary to my experience with Ramadan in Jerusalem one time over 14 years ago.  People are overjoyed by the month, it’s celebrated, and you feel it all around you.

Note: I did find quite a few regional and a couple of national articles this year pointing out the disparity between Ramadan and other Religious holidays.  Ramadan is not recognized in the workplace, nor in the school system.  This is always problematic except during the three day period of Eid ul Fitr.  People typically cope with this by taking those days out of their vacation.  However the big problem comes from school districts afraid of losing money.  It is not an excused absence even though it is a religious necessity.  Some years, like this year it falls during Yom Kippur which is given consideration by school districts, and kids can take it off for that. However can you see the problem with claiming to be Jewish in order to take part in your Islamic holiday?  Also there is a great problem in the fact that Christian and Jewish holidays are recognized and Islamic ones are not.  School officials fire back that if Ramadan is given a pass from school then every Pagan holiday (which could amount to everyday of the year) could be given a pass.  This is ridiculous as they misunderstand that it is Eid ul Fitr that is being asked for.  Also it is unacceptably insensitive to those of Pagan beliefs.

Some people are calling for demonstrations and marches to point out this inequality.  Most Imams recommend keeping children home and encouraging schools and workplaces and the government to look at numbers.

Either way it seems that people are feeling like there are some hardships and unfair treatment around their Holy days.

G.R.-Do you personally feel like people are looking to you and your family as an example of Islam during this time and how much stress does that put on you?

M.S.-It’s not so much as pressure being put on my family in particular as every family is equally responsible for enforcing the practices of Ramadan.  There is no tension from outside persons.  The actual pressure is teaching, practicing and maintaining the guidelines of Ramadan within ones home.  During the beginning of the month we are more enthusiastic towards the fasting, suhur (pre-morning meal) and prayer, and then the hunger and weakness slowly begin to take a toll on you.  It can be quite irritable for smokers since they refrain from smoking.

Ramadan not only advocates fasting to feel with the poor.  It’s a total disciplinary action.  It’s strict guidelines mandate abstaining from sexual activity, drug use, smoking, cussing, drinking, fighting, revenge, hatred and any other bad habits or addictions.  These provisions are not only meant to show that a person can overcome any obstacle/s that they may have incurred, it proves that you can.  Not every Muslim complies, but most do, especially when the whole community is involved.  That’s encouragement.

G.R.-I did not know about the decorating.  That is interesting and I wish more people would do this in the U.S.  Do you think they are busy or afraid or just too American?

M.S.-I wouldn’t say they’re afraid.  It’s more that they’re busy or like you said too assimilated.  I guess people don’t want to stand out or grab too much attention.  The intention is there, but how can you water a plant that was never planted?  My parents didn’t practice this age old tradition here, so it’s not that important to me.  Although it should be, every year I say that I will, yet I don’t.  I’m positive it will instill that sense of pride and holiday cheer.  I see how passionate people are about Christmas with all the beautiful decor.  I envy that, yet admire it.  Even though I do find that nowadays Christmas decorating has less to do with the actual purpose of the holiday.  I don’t think society even knows the meaning behind the holiday anymore.

G.R.-Obviously there are exceptions to fasting like pregnancy.  What about those who are diabetic or need to take medications that require food?

M.S.-In situations like this, they are excused.  Instead of fasting they have the opportunity to give alms.  For every day of Ramadan they will have to feed a hungry person.  They can also give the monetary equivalent of one meal multiplied by 30 days to a person in need as well.  This will forgive them for breaking the fast.

Persons that are unable to fast are encouraged to participate in other activities of Ramadan so that they will stay focused on the importance of this holy month.  Activities include Taraweeh prayer at the masjid, completing a read of the entire holy Quran, joining others at time of breaking the fast or iftar, and remaining steadfast in prayer.

G.R.-When you have not fasted due to pregnancy do you feel a little left out?

M.S.-It’s normal to feel left out, but if a woman feels capable of fasting then she can, it’s an option.  I tried to fast while pregnant and felt it wasn’t right, it was too wearing.  Women are not supposed to fast while menstruating either.  They do have to make up for the days that were missed.

G.R.-At what age does one begin fasting?

M.S.-Fasting is obligatory once a child hits puberty.  By the age of seven you can start preparing them by having them fast half a day every now and then.

G.R.-Are people looked down upon or ostracized for breaking fast?  Is this something that requires a special repentance?

M.S.-One does have to make up their fast if they missed any during Ramadan.  This is obligatory.  Fasting can be made up any Monday or Thursday of the year aside from Ramadan.

It’s not our position to judge anyone; we have to worry about our own actions.  But yes, people do tend to judge and they shouldn’t.  Fasting is a submission of faith and done so that one can rectify himself with God.  People see it as an opportunity.

G.R.-In recent years with the Anti-Islam media attention do you feel like you see more anti-Islamic news stories around this time of year?  Or does it seem to be pretty much the same year round?

M.S.-Honestly, I didn’t really pay attention.  I mean there’s been so much anti-Islam jargon for over a decade now.  I don’t think any time of the year has more media emphasis than September 11.  It’s just coincidence that Ramadan moves up eleven days each year and has been happening around this date for the last four years.

G.R.-Is Ramadan mostly about “feeling poor” or is it more about the faith, repentance and submission to Allah?

M.S.-Ramadan is not based solely on feeling poor at all.  It’s a duty, a submission to Allah.  When a person makes prayer and gives alms it’s for their benefit, but when a person fasts during Ramadan is entirely for Allah, and Allah will decide how to reward you.  It’s one of the five pillars of Islam which are:

Prayer, Charity, Fasting, The Pilgrimage and Al Shahadeh (Recognizing that there is only one God and no other).

There are so many benefits to fasting and they cannot be based on one thing alone.

G.R.-Has it always been a part of Islam or was it instituted at a later date, because the people needed the reminder?

M.S.-“Oh you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those who came before you that you may keep your duty to your Lord ” 2:185

Fasting was mentioned in the Holy Quran and the prophet himself used to fast.  The Holy Quran was revealed to the prophet during the month of Ramadan.  That’s what makes Ramadan so important.

G.R- What special feasts, prayers, celebrations accompany then end of Ramadan?

M.S. – Ramadan will end somewhere between Sept. 9th to the 11th. It all depends on the moon since our calendar is lunar. I don’t want it to end on the 11th at all. Too much unnecessary association for something coincidental. The last day of Ramadan is followed by a three day holiday called Eid ul Fitr. This means festival of breaking the fast.

The initial day of Eid ul Fitr is started by participating in an early morning prayer at the mosque-salaat al Eid or prayer of the Eid. After prayer children are showered with toys, candies, gift bags or whatever else generous donators have prepared. Adults are offered sweets. Once we leave the Masjid, we (as in my family) usually go out for brunch. It is custom for the men in the family to visit their sisters, daughters, mothers, aunts cousins and any other closely related female members and/or young children and orphans. The point of the visit consists of the men offering monetary gifts to their walia’s, (walia is a person usually female that they may have partial or full responsibility over). Additionally, the community usually throws a large Eid party which has bazaar like activities and games.  The initial day of Eid ul Fitr is where of the most action happens. The two remaining days are spent either relaxing or finishing any other duties that may have rolled over from the previous day.  The excitement over Eid could be compared to Christmas.  We look forward to it and anticipate it.  This is how my family celebrates the Eid.  However, every family celebrates the Eid at their own pace and style and may differ from what we do.

I find that Eid ul Fitr is more anticipated than our bigger holiday Eid ul Udha, (Festival of the Sacrifice). It may be due to the lengthy and daunting month of fasting, after all one wants to feel rewarded.

The United States as it always does is changing.  Some of this is bad and as with all things sometimes good things happen because of the bad.  Awareness of the cultural and religious practices of the modern American Muslim is one of those things in my opinion.

Most religions and a lot of non-religious people as well have times in the year where they ritualize internal, community and family housecleaning.  It is, I think one of the beautiful things shared; A time to think of others a time to recognize what we have. With so much effort being put into pointing out what may be different about us all, it is crucial to take time to find out what is similar in our lives.

Happy Eid ul Fitr. May your cup be full and if it is not, may you find respite in the overflowing.