Ramadan (Food) and the Working Girl

This year is my thirteenth Ramadan, and I have spent ten of them working full time. While my husband was always able to organize his annual leave to be off for two weeks in Ramadan, a collection of luck and circumstances meant that I usually had to work – a board meeting, a month-end close, a big court case…the list goes on. So I have gotten very good at organizing my life during Ramadan to make sure that I can still work and perform at reasonable levels and at the same time live my faith the way I want to.

One crucial point I think some Muslims miss out on is that our behaviour and how we carry ourselves is dawah in itself.  The non-Muslims in your entourage, which may include your coworkers, do look at how you are coping during Ramadan. If you come in to work tired and bitchy because you haven’t had coffee and haven’t slept because you were at Tarawih until 2 am and you’re bugging out because you have to go home and cook a five-course Ramadan extravaganza for the 15 people hanging out in your two-bedroom apartment, they’re going to think you don’t have this on lock.

As a convert-married-to, during my early Ramadans I often fell trap to “this is how Muslims do Ramadan,” when in reality what I was living was “this is how my husband’s Franco-Algerian Parisian family does Ramadan.”  What we ate at breakfast, what we cooked for dinner, when we prayed maghrib and when we went to the masjid… this was all done the “family” way.  And there is nothing wrong with that, but the past few Ramadans have given me space to step back and decide how Nicole’s Ramadan should be.  I learned key three things in the recent past which have helped me keep running at work and lessened my anxiety about “missing out” on Ramadan.

1. You don’t have to cook or eat as much ask you think.

Now that I am a crazy cat lady living alone, I do all of my “Ramadan” cooking on Sunday nights.  I usually cook three dishes and some rice. I then put all of it in single serve containers and freeze the Thursday-Saturday portions.  I keep the fridge stocked with salad and salad accessories, so that when I get home I have a prep time of ten minutes max.  We eat to live and not live to eat. I love “Ramadan food” as much as the next girl but sometimes no one’s mama is cooking for you and sometimes you have to cook for people and hold down a job.

And to be fair, at least on that point, I lucked out in the husband sweepstakes. When I hear stories about other men wanting fresh homemade bread daily and refusing to eat leftovers during Ramadan, at least homie was perfectly content with some salad and whatever was one the table.  That was pretty cool, actually.  But if you lower your culinary expectations and re-frame your thinking to “what can I eat tonight that is nutritious and filling and will help me make it through the next 24 hours” rather than “whaaaa it’s Ramadan I want to eat ALL TEH FOOD,” then you have already taken one step in lowering the drama and angst about what’s for dinner. Some could disagree with this, and I see their point, that when children are involved if you don’t make special food then you don’t make it clear to them that this is a special event and childhood memories and all that.  But, especially because Ramadan shouldn’t be about the food, I find in an adults-only household (or adult and cat), keeping meals as organized simple as possible actually helps me to focus more on the spiritual side of Ramadan.

2. You don’t have to go to the masjid if you don’t want to.

I had a lot of pressure early on from various people about how I didn’t go to Tarawih when I was working. Do the math: if I wake up for suhoor (which I generally do), go work all day, stay up doing various things relating to guests or meal prep, eat, then go to the masjid…well then that means three hours of sleep on a good night. That isn’t sustainable, at least for me, over a whole month.  Don’t let people, especially those who don’t have 9-to-5 jobs and can take a little nap after fajr, guilt trip you or try to one-up you about how this is the month of rewards and shaytan being locked up means if you stay home from tarawih you are missing out on points for the afterlife and if you want to skip that then you are an essentially horrible person.  If you can’t take off of work, you need to organize your time the way it works for you and the spiritual goals you have for the month.  In my case, this means I usually do Friday night tarawih, and I receive guests on Saturday nights.  If I am invited to someone else’s house, I usually do that on a weeknight to save Sunday for cooking and resting.  Yes, it sucks to work and during Ramadan I wish I could stay home all day and stay in the masjid all night. Life doesn’t always work that way for me and I have learned to accept that seeing the bigger picture (=not being a zombie at work and keeping the gainful employment that allows me to put a roof over my head) means I will miss some mosque time, and that is ok.

3. You don’t have to skip your lunch break.

I find, especially now that Ramadan is creeping into the summer months, that I really like my Ramadan lunch break.  I’m one of those people who can’t fall asleep after suhoor (regardless of the amount of caffeine consumed, I just don’t fall asleep easily) so once I am up, I’m up.  That means about 20 hours of “awake time” this Ramadan in Switzerland.  So that I can keep my game on at work, I learned a few years ago to take my lunch break anyway.  I take this time to give my brain a chance to shut down. I sit or lie down somewhere cool, usually hijacking a conference room or a storage room, and spend my hour listening to Islamic lectures on podcast. On a related note, I usually talk to my bosses just before Ramadan to explain to them what I would like and ask them what they expect of me. This is also the time to address their concerns about lower performance, which is funny, because if you aren’t eating, your blood sugar isn’t spiking, which is the most common cause of “slumps” at work. The only thing I try to avoid during Ramadan are meetings and presentations where I have to do a lot of talking; my throat is already dry, and in a cramped meeting room, nobody cares that the faster’s breath is “sweet.” Regarding working hours, I clarify with them what my “eating” times are, and ask how I would be allowed to tweak my schedule within the core hours of a 9-5 operation.  In previous Ramadans when maghrib was earlier in the day, I preferred to come in early (between 6 and 7 am since I was up anyway) and leave 4:30 ish.  Now that maghrib is quite late and I am working in a “later” office, this year I will probably try to come in later and work later.

To wrap up, two final tips I live by in Ramadan are: 1. always have food on you.  You never know where you will have to break fast, and that energy bar could mean you saying yes to going to the masjid, even knowing full well the men are going to hit that chicken biryani first and you might get a few grains of rice after people have served themselves and the tupperwares in their purses.  Been there.  Secondly, if you are at work, brush your teeth. With toothpaste. More than once if you have to.  Yes it is makrooh, but like I said, your coworkers don’t think your breath is sweet.

Edited to Add: For more on Ramadan, and to read the rest of the posts in MMW’s Ramadan 2012 series, click here.

  • ismail

    this is quite inspiring. may Allah strenghten us

  • Anike

    Yes to all of this!

    I do cooking in bulk because this is something I learnt from my mother. At home we tend to eat extravagantly for iftar but this all comes from the freezer.

  • naida

    finally someone said it beautifully simple. that should be Ramadan in today’s world. many thanks for wonderful post.

  • http://susu-pekat-manis.blogspot.com Cha

    I so feel you. This is my first Ramadan away from my family, in a two-adults-only household, in the Netherlands. I find myself doing much of what you are doing!

  • LouAnna alahem

    I so like her. Tell it like it really is, because a lot of us have to so a day’s work anyway and during Ramadan it’s just that much more challenging.

  • anneke

    I am a married woman, stay at home mum, and I LOVE the tupperware dinners! Wish I had your Ramadan approach, I kind of find myself on a month long “Survivor”… And that after 3 days… Sigh…

  • Leigh

    So true! And yes, brush those teeth!

  • http://www.yasmin-raoufi.blogspot.com Yasmin

    Thank you for this very beautiful and realistic post!

  • http://kellythinkstoomuch.wordpress.com/ KellyK

    Some could disagree with this, and I see their point, that when children are involved if you don’t make special food then you don’t make it clear to them that this is a special event and childhood memories and all that.

    You know, I think as far as childhood memories go, as long as it’s food you don’t eat all the time, and it tastes good, kids are pretty likely to see it as special. I say this because the one of the strongest “holiday food” memories that I have is of cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. Not homemade or anything, but the kind that come in a tube that goes POP!, with a little packet of super-sweet icing. Nothing in any way fancy or complicated, but it still felt very special because that was pretty much the only time we had them. (And also, sugar!)

  • http://amuslimahwrites.wordpress.com Sarah F.

    Great post! Couple of thoughts to expand on the points you made:
    - Re creating memories for children: agreed, it is quite important. Even in this case, though, it’s imperative to have some days where you just have regular food and not rich, ‘special occasion’ food. Kids need to also know that Ramadan isn’t about having a manic foodfest every day.

    - I so COMPLETELY agree on the point regarding taraweehs. Especially in the summer months when they end after midnight. It is after all sunnah, to the extent that the Prophet deliberately stayed in one night in Ramadan to make a point that the taraweeh is not obligatory. If it’s a matter of taraweehs or more sleep so that you can function at work the next day, I say go for the taraweehs all the way.

    A brilliant post that is so connected to the contemporary reality of living and working as a practicing Muslim in North America. Thank you so much, Nicole! May Allah bless.

    • http://amuslimahwrites.wordpress.com Sarah F.

      Bah! In the third last sentence I of course meant go for SLEEP all the way :)

  • Zafar

    Great post, very real.

  • nasia

    You are my favorite blogger now. Just read your amazing post, you got it covered!. It said everything I have ever wanted to say or felt, But obviously too scared to even express considering my background. And I am married into a family, where all the women are covered from head to toe, but that has in no way, ever affected the way they judge the women with their looks and looks alone. They worship the fair ones, are pretty sad if their new daughter in law isnt fair enough. So much for covering up, makes no difference.
    Adn their men always look like they just walked out of an adverstiments who hang out with understylish women, who wear lose clothes and cover up.

    Also to say, loved this article as well. Makes so much sense, ramadan isnt a food festival. So just let your mothers/sisters be.

  • Carol

    My Christmas memories include NO food – well maybe some relatives sending us those hampers of cheese. However, I still have wonderful memories of those celebrations. So don’t overestimate the importance of food.

  • http://www.onefemalecanuck.com one female canuck

    Thank you for this — I laughed out loud several times.

    Another tip: Floss! I mean, you should do this on the regular, but if you don’t, then do it now. It’s the stuff between the teeth that makes your breath smell…uhm…”sweet”.

    And: At suhoor, load yourself up on multi-grains and fruit. If you can do it, kill a banana and some dates, and maybe even yogurt and oatmeal. You don’t need a lot of each, but they will carry you through the day!

    Thanks again for a wicked fun read!
    Maha (breaking fast at 8.45 pm in Canadia, alhamduliLah)

  • Aussie lady

    What a lovely post, & yes, all of it is so TRUE!
    I use to work full time & I use to precook my meals all year round not just in Ramadan on Sunday. I would make 3 or 4 different dishes, or even bases for meals that only need the vegs to be thrown in & the dish is complete . I found this extremely helpful. My family understood that this is the sacrifice I have to pay for working a full time job. I did though make an effort to cook special meals that I wouldn’t normally cook during the year, & I must say, there is always baraka in Ramadan that make meals special. As for work, even though I had been in the same place for 7 yrs, every year I get the same questions, & people would approach me to ensure I had not fainted.
    Where ever you are around the globes ladies, may Allah give us all strength and accept our fasting in Ramadan ia.
    P.S. I stumbled on this site as I was looking for dinner ideas…any thoughts anyone?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

    I think your point about lunch breaks is so important. As a grad student, I don’t have the same structured schedule as people who have “real jobs,” but I do find that, when I’m not fasting, breaks to eat also serve as breaks in doing work, and sometimes I need that to recharge. When I am fasting, I can get caught up in things that would be better accomplished after a 10-minute break, because I just forget to stop.

    Along the same lines, I was with some friends over the weekend, and we realised late in the afternoon that we had been walking around for several hours without stopping, and we were TIRED! If we hadn’t been fasting, there would have been at least one lunch/coffee break in there, which would have also been useful just as a reason to sit still for a few minutes, but since we were fasting, it hadn’t occurred to us to stop.

    Anyway, yeah, breaks are not just for food :) And YES on always making sure you have food with you!

  • http://www.nicolecunningham.ch Nicole

    Thanks to all of you for such positive feedback! I’m really touched that my article hit a nerve and inspired so many comments! I’m so grateful!

  • Nadia in Canada

    So happy I found this post. Rock on girl!
    Yes Oatmeal (the real not instand kind) keeps hubby and me going all day.

  • AC in California


    wow you’re a tough cookie. kudos!

    Also I wanted to say that, Taraweeh is not mandatory on women so I don’t know who was forcing that. My family is like somewhere in between conservative and moderate and my mom never goes for Taraweeh, maybe like once or twice in Ramadan. (and she doesn’t work…well handling 4 boys can be considered a a full time gig I suppose :P)

    Just a tid bit of info. :)

  • Merium

    Hi Nicole! Great post. Love how you’ve been able to diffuse the story with so much humor. Couldn’t stop laughing in parts. Ramadan Mubarak! :)