Common Ground: Sexist Ramadan “Mistakes”

For many of us, the last few weeks before the start of Ramadan mark a time to prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually for gaining the benefits of the month ahead.

As such, the mass email forwards began arriving in my inbox in early August, with lists prepared by various Muslim institutions gently reminding the faithful to beware of the “Common Mistakes Made During Ramadan.”

The Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, recently published one such list (see the list in Arabic here).

The notion of a subtle reminder not to let the blessings of Ramadan slip from our grasp is worthy and appreciated.

But, as U.A.E. newspaper The National points out, nearly half of the “mistakes” on Dubai’s list concern women.

One such “mistake” is “wasting too much time” on food preparation and spending most of the day in the kitchen during Ramadan working on elaborate iftar (fast-breaking) meals, the department says.

Another error, it notes, is a tendency of women to wear too much perfume and make-up when attending congregational prayers and then mingling with men when they join their families after prayers at the mosque.

“Such behavior may distract others from worship,” The National quotes the department as saying.

In total, six of the 14 errors that the department says Muslims make during Ramadan deal specifically with women.

The critiques are all valid in their own right. It is unfortunate that Ramadan often becomes more about cooking and feasting than fasting, and some women may very well come to the mosque dressed more appropriately for a night of revelry than a night of prayer.

But what the list fails to mention is the idea that often times, the females of a household spend hours in the kitchen not of their own accord, but because it is demanded or expected of them by their families.

Further, perhaps the time and effort it takes to prepare such meals for fasting family members could be considered an alternative form of ibadah, or worship.

More generally, though, this list and others like it beg the question: Why is it that women are so often found seemingly in need of reminders about the error of their ways when it comes to religion?

Is it because women are not encouraged to attend the mosque on a regular basis in many of our societies, where the fundamentals of faith are often taught?

Is it because Muslim women are often told what not to do without being told the rationale behind the edict?

Or are these lists simply not cognizant of the fact that these supposed breaches of behavior have more to do with societal factors than by virtue of being a woman?

  • Safiyyah

    salams malika…
    this is a really great post…
    its terrible how intense these “what not to do in ramadan” lists get. here in S.Africa, its all you hear if u switch on the community radio stations…women are always at the centre of it..
    instead of the messages being encouraging and inclusive, like calling on families as a whole to prepare iftar so that every1 can do their worship, and encouraging women to go to the masaajid, there is always this blame factor…women are treated like kids with a constant wagging finger.

    thanks for bringing this to our attention, made me realize how sexist it is, besides being simplistic.

  • Sr D

    I love this!!!!!!!

    I have been receiving the ‘Common mistakes made during Ramadhan’ email and you’re right- a lot of it is directed towards women.

    Ibbadah can be made in SOOO many ways…we have the fundamentals of Worship: reciting Qur’an, performing our Fard- the 5 pillars…but things like cleaning is an act of worship…cooking for your husband/ family’s pleasure is an act of worship…all these things make Allah Subhaana wa T’ala PLEASED WITH US so how can these things be made out as a “waste of time?”

    Man, even sleep is worship! (not in excess of course, he he he)

    Maybe it’s the intention we should all look at?

    Do we go to the kitchen to prepare food to please our families in order to please Allah SWT…or…is it an excuse to actually delay the reciting of Qur’an, performing salaah…etc?

    AllahuAlim.

    Intentions is where it’s at.

  • Sobia

    “Why is it that women are so often found seemingly in need of reminders about the error of their ways when it comes to religion?”

    But don’t you know Malika? Women’s intelligence is half of that of a man. We just are not smart enough to know better. We get distracted by jewellery and clothes. We need men, who are much smarter and focused, to keep reminding us of our duties. If left to our own devices we would be completely lost.

    Sadly, all sarcasm and joking aside, a large part of what I said (in sarcasm) is actually true in too many circles.

    Of course this assumption that we are somehow stupider is not unique to Muslims. We see this here in North America as well. Watch any Hollywood movie or even any commercial on TV. The sexism is quite offensive. However, the sad part is that in many Muslim circles such sexism is presented from a religious perspective, regardless of whether or not it is religious.

  • Faatima

    Good observations. Instead of focusing on benefits we can derive from Ramadan, some of these “mistake” emails take the wrong approach, in my opinion. Preparing food and feeding believers who are fasting is a source of barakah and needs to be acknowledged as such. We should be emphasizing the reward in all good actions, and then suggest ways to temper the extremes – such as spending all day in the kitchen versus a couple of hours – because there are so many other ways to reap reward during this month, in addition to preparing food. There should be a balance, of course, as with anything – and I think that’s where these mistake emails and talks are lacking. How can we expect to encourage good deeds and behavior if we turn people away by making them doubt and focus on shortcomings, whether they perceive them as such, or others do?

    The beauty in all good acts is a topic in the following song:
    Native Deen – Small Deeds
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5Uzc_G542E

  • http://www.muslimreverie.wordpress.com Jehanzeb

    Wow, that list is appalling. It’s clear that whoever these male religious scholars are, they’re trying to remind Muslim women about their “role” in Muslim society and how they’re “supposed to behave.” It seems, to them, that Ramadan is a month for men to not only be “better Muslims,” but also to put Muslim women “in their place.”

    Actually, what distracts people from worship are these kind of sexist lists that try to mold Muslim women in ways that certain Muslim men want them to be. These people will never learn.

    How about a list of sexist mistakes that Muslim men make in their communities? That’s what I call self-improvement.

  • Layali

    Thanks, Malika.

    I bet watching Ramadan soup operas is also on that list and women are usually the ones watching them religiously, although some men do too. I hate those soup operas, especially the ones like Bab El Harah and the like, to which people (many of whom educated and liberal) seem too addicted to see how they portray women in very submissive roles within extremely patriarchal communities.

  • lulu

    FYI,

    UAE families tend to have maids that do the cooking for the household. So to say that the women of the family spend too much time in the kitchen is a misnomer. Take it from me, my mother’s side is from the Gulf as well.

  • http://ahmedeldin.com hamoodi

    I think that Lulu’s comment is interesting – almost as interesting as your article – maybe that is what the next post should be about?

    A night of revelry…love it.

  • Sobia

    And who are these maids? Are they Muslim women?

  • RCHOUDH

    If these types of lists are going to continue being made, then they shouldn’t just address Muslim women. What about the Muslim husbands who come to expect their wives to cook these fancy meals for them (and not just for Ramadhan but for all year round)? And if in laws are staying with the couple, what about the stereotypical monster in law who may complain about her “bahu” not preparing fancy meals to impress her with? And also kids should be targeted too, in case they’ve grown up always being coddled with their favorite meals being prepared every night during Ramadhan.

  • Kathy

    In my very limited experience, many maids in the Gulf were from the Phillippines, and were typically Catholic. Most of the building labourers were from Pakistan/India but there appeared to be far fewer women immigrants from those regions. I could be wrong though

  • http://www.thetincocoon.blogspot.com Miss Tbonita

    Thank you for posting this and for pointing this out. It’s true women or woman if she be the sole female in a household of boys preparing the iftar meals ends up most of the time in the kitchen — but it is because the family expects it, even if not forcibly there are expectations for setting an elaborate fast-breaking meal. I did see it as part of my service both spiritually and physically (to nourish my family). The men in my family have always counted labor as part of spiritual devotion. And have said that it is women who gain more during Ramadan because of all the work and fasting and career work they do in this day and age. I wish more people could recognize that as well.

  • http://blog.hichamaged.net/ Hicham Maged

    Thanks for the very interesting article which makes me wonder, doesn’t it reflect more about the ‘behavior’ of Muslim Women -especially Arab descndes- who are being raised that “Food is the shortest way to the heart of your husband” … blah blah blah?!

    I mean if you’re living in any Arab country, you’ll be probably be flooded over Radio/TV with these ads about ‘food, coocking’, ‘ads about cleaning clothes because of cooking’ & ‘ads about cleaning dishs after coocking’ ..ect.

    I think they have role somehow! What do you think?

  • Malika

    Thanks for the feedback, it’s great to hear your thoughts on this.

    And Faatima, your link to the Native Deen video is right on point – sometimes we overlook the ‘small deeds.’


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