Ramadan is a good time to remember the challenges many women face

Women in traditional families often bear a special burden during the holy month, and this must be appreciated

Palestinian women prepare the Iftar meal on the first day of Ramadan. AP
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Ramadan is a sacred month observed by Muslims, marked by fasting, prayer, reflection and spiritual growth. But for many Muslim women, it is not easy. Juggling cooking, cleaning, work, family responsibilities, child care, elder care, fatigue and dehydration among other concerns can feel endless – all the while striving to make the most of this spiritually significant month.

While we talk, understandably, about the physical challenges of Ramadan, it is time to also think about the mental health challenges, particularly for women. This draws from an increase in all the physical challenges, the mental load of managing it all, the social expectations and the spiritual yearning.

A 2021 Statista report looked at activities before iftar by gender in the Middle East and North Africa. The distribution of responsibilities is stark. More men are watching television (20 per cent) or using the internet (22 per cent) than cooking (16 per cent). And what are women doing? Cooking (77 per cent), mostly, whereas men are spending time reading the Quran (68 per cent). The study represents the difference in the gender experiences. Muslim women too would like to participate more fully in the spirituality aspect of Ramadan.

In another study from 2013, women were spending twice as long cooking in Ramadan – the month of fasting, and thinking of others – than during the rest of the year. The differences in Ramadan experiences for men and women are not just about cooking, they spread across life.

The mental health challenges come from a number of places. There are more physical responsibilities, but less physical input and sleep. And that can cause mental fatigue and burnout. It’s also round-the-clock, especially for women with young children. They may simply not be sleeping. Daytime child or elder care, while not "paid work", is nonetheless hugely demanding, and the children need to be fed even if the mothers are themselves not eating. The job of looking after children doesn’t end at 5pm, it’s 24/7. And all of this comes with the relentless pressure of the hours, since iftar and suhoor have fixed times.

There can be a huge mental health toll that comes with the sense of being judged by family, be it in-laws, husbands and the constant frenemy: social media. And all of that starts worming its way into women’s heads, with excessive demands on the self to be perfect.

For mothers, there is also the desire and expectation to be what I call the "chief memory officer" for children and the family – to provide the picture perfect Ramadan, to create memories. Muslim women are also bearing the heartache of what is happening in the world while trying to make happiness in their own homes.

While we talk about the physical challenges, it is time to also think about the mental health challenges, particularly for women

Women’s bodies are also different, but this is not taken into account in the "norm" of the way Ramadan is depicted. I was looking at a suggested timetable for Ramadan, with five hours of sleep and every hour packed with individualised activities for the self. Such timetables are clearly aimed at men with no responsibilities. Some say these are just suggestions, but we must be aware that their proliferation makes managing all the tasks of the day during Ramadan seem nearly impossible, especially for women.

Some people will say that there are blessings in cooking and looking after the family and that is, of course, true. It is hard, however, for women when men aren’t doing these duties as well. And considering the spiritual worship is so key, many more men – ideally all men – should support women by taking on some of the load.

However, the arguments about the religious merits of who should do which kind of Ramadan practice are irrelevant. If Ramadan is also about empathising with others, and if charity begins at home, surely the women in families, communities and societies should be the first recipients of that.

Given that women’s mental health in Ramadan isn’t talked about much, here is where a new podcast I’ve launched comes in. A weekly Ramadan series, to support women from the first week of Ramadan to Eid, "Muslim women Talk Ramadan" is by Muslim women, for Muslim women – a place to explore issues and ensuring that women’s Ramadan mental health is supported.

It’s about candid conversations, and feeling part of a community, exploring every individual’s personal Ramadan journey and emphasising compassion, kindness and self-respect. Muslim women from all walks of life share their experiences and wisdom. My daughters make an appearance too. As mothers, its important for us to hear what the next generation is experiencing.

Our goal is to have Muslim women be relieved of the anxiety, stress or mental health pressures that so many across the world have to cope with, so that they too can enjoy Ramadan and feel its full spiritual benefits.

Published: March 18, 2024, 10:02 AM