Equal rites and Ramadan: Life in the fast lane

Dates are the traditional food to break the fast in the evening. (AFP)

Dates are the traditional food to break the fast in the evening. (AFP)

This week, Muslims all around the world marked the first day of Ramadan: a month of abstinence from food and liquids from dawn until sunset. Those who are ill, diabetic, or travelling, as well as women who are pregnant, breast-feeding or menstruating, will not be fasting.

This is the first time in over 10 years that I come face to face with Ramadan in an Arab country, having recently moved to Abu Dhabi from the United Kingdom.

Growing up in Jordan as one of four children with parents who upheld the traditions of the month, my siblings and I looked upon Ramadan as a magical time. The fact that our neighbour’s house was adorned with strings of fairy lights, and ours seemed to be perfumed constantly with the mixed smells of food and burning incense, served as a constant reminder that this month was a special one. The uninterrupted chanting of Qur’an verses emanating from the nearby mosque officiated the absolute solemnity of Ramadan.

With today’s hustle and bustle and everyone’s busy, erratic lifestyle, it is not often that a family gets together to share a meal beyond the weekend. The arrival of Ramadan puts paid to that as people zoom off to be with their families for the break of the fast, or Iftar. Mothers and grandmothers rush to prepare elaborate dishes to a guaranteed audience that is on time, hungry and appreciative. Tables are usually laden with enough dishes (most synonymous with Ramadan) to feed a small army seeking to camp in any backyard.

This is a month renowned for being a spectacular time of culinary extravaganzas and elaborate, even exhausting, family gatherings – think Christmas Day replayed for 30 days.

Taxing time for women
That said, Ramadan is a particularly taxing time for women, not only for the time-consuming labour they have to put into producing meals on an empty stomach and deciding what to cook each day, but also because many have to do so while tending to children who are too young to fast, or they are holding a full-time job, or both.

Daily chores – from the ironing and tidying up to planning the next day’s meals, kids’ activities and office meetings – extend into the small hours of the morning, leaving little time for worship, less time for sleep.

Websites abound with tips for women on how to manage the Ramadan budget, how to worship, how to prioritise duties, how to organise the children and how to educate them on the virtues of fasting. They also advise how to prepare the kitchen for Iftar and Suhoor (the last meal before the dawn prayer announces the start of the next day’s fast), in addition to list upon list of recipes – as if the gist of Ramadan is that of a feast rather than a fast.

Needless to say, not one offers instruction on how the men could lend a helping hand.

But times are changing, albeit slowly, particularly within the younger expat Arab communities living in the Arab Gulf states such as Abu Dhabi, who tend to live away from family and relatives.

With both partners working full-time, they are aware of the need to keep meals simple and nutritious, concentrating on quality rather than quantity. Entertaining friends, in lieu of family, is restricted mainly to the weekend.

• See also Samoosas: triangulator of tradition

Even so, in most cases women will still plan and cook the meal, out of tradition not religion, hopefully with male family members pitching in to do the shopping, or by lending a hand during the preparation of the meal or the cleaning up afterwards.

The expat lifestyle sees families take advantage of the myriad Iftar offers at hotels and restaurants around town towards the middle of Ramadan, when energy levels drop and the novelty of the fast starts to wane, replaced by boredom. Eating out brings not only a change of scenery, but also allows women a much-needed break from cooking.

Collective societal anticipation
It is safe to say that almost all conversations I’ve had with friends, male and female, for the past few weeks have inevitably veered towards the Ramadan preparations. There is a collective societal anticipation in the air, a real gearing up both physical and emotional for the hardships that the body will have to endure for 30 days. Many have been practising skipping their morning coffee, reducing smoking or giving it up in the hope of minimising the inevitable discomfort that accompanies long hours of abstinence.

Others have for several weeks now been stocking up on food as if spending Ramadan in hibernation. It is a delight and a fascination to witness first hand what a Ramadan food shop is like. To the outsider it seems like a mad dash of grabbing at random and hurling food into over-flowing trolleys that require at least two SUVs to transport their contents home.

When I enquire I am gently but firmly reminded by female counterparts that coming up with meal ideas for 30 days requires prior planning for which ingredients can be stocked in advance. The first week is the most taxing and exhausting as the body gets to grips with the fast. Therefore it’s a relief for a woman to know that, during that time, she is spared the burden of having to go out to the shops, cutting down on one burdensome chore.

Ramadan is the month Muslims dedicate to Allah, a month for prayer and piety, for charity and charitable deeds. An annual observance and one of the pillars of Islam, it commemorates the revelation of the first verses of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. Ramadan is also the time for spiritual reflection and self-examination.

Having said that, might not Ramadan be the opportunity for members of the fasting community to pause, reflect, assess and re-evaluate the unrealistic expectations placed on women and the breaking free of the shackles of primitive stereotyping and gender inequality? – © Guardian News & Media 2014



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