One of the great paradoxes of Ramadan is that, in spite of fasting food consumption goes up. There’s a lot of talk before Ramadan about the month being a time of self-restraint, of renunciation of the physical in favour of the spiritual and of thinking about those less fortunate than ourselves. Yet our activities during this month paint a very different picture.
They also reveal something startling about how we really see the role of women in our societies and how we treat their needs. Periods of high pressure reveal our true attitudes. And Ramadan is a case in point.
Here’s one shocking thing about Ramadan: wives spend twice as long cooking during Ramadan than the rest of the year.
Yes, that’s right. During this month when people are supposed to spend less time eating, women spend double their time in the kitchen. A typical Ramadan picture is that of a mother cooking till the adhaan of iftaar as the rest of the family awaits tired and hungry. The imagery conveniently ignores the fact that women too fast all day.
Wives around the Muslim world talk about how they worry aboutstretching budgets to accommodate the family’s desires for special treats. We know that women attend the mosque much less frequently than men, and many mosques don’t have provisions for women. We know that women are left holding the fort at home looking after the children, while men attend mosques to cater to their own spiritual needs. In fact, men may often spend the last 10 nights away from home in i’tikaf, leaving women to manage the household.
The justification is that it is spiritually rewarding for women to cook for their families and care for the children. But this, I’m afraid, has the feel of post-hoc justification. Why should there be extra pressure on cooking? If the month is about reduced consumption and if we truly care about affording women the spiritual opportunities of the month, then we would expect less cooking, not more. Women, too, need time for spiritual immersion in this special period, which is supposed to be different from daily life. Instead of reducing housework and child care, these duties are increased. Whilst there is a religious reward for child care, anyone who spends day in day out with children will tell you that it is draining and even demoralising, and how wonderful it would be in Ramadan to have even half an hour for spiritual immersion.
If you read the tips about Ramadan on the internet, you would see that there are plenty of directives on how women can better manage the household, cook more efficiently and train children in Ramadan activities. Search for Ramadan and husbands, and the only advice that comes up is whether or not they can be intimate at night.
Women themselves have some role in this – they are distracted by Ramadan soap operas and exert themselves to cook a wide range of cuisines and give everyone their favourite foods.
Overall, this is a picture that shows women as people whose spiritual needs are de-prioritised against those of men.
All this adds up to one conclusion: we see our true colours on display at this time of pressure. We see that for some Ramadan is not about spiritual expression but about gluttony and escapism. It also demonstrates how we see women’s roles: as cooks and child minders. If it were about spiritual benefits, then the role of women and her experience of Ramadan would be quite different.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk