Opinion

Ramadan 2020: Muslim Women Carry Their Communities Through COVID-19

"We're finding other ways to serve our community and worship simultaneously."

We’ve entered the last 10 days of Ramadan, an immeasurably important time where Muslims often ramp up worship as we head towards the finish line—and the feast! It’s time to give roses to those who are upholding community always, but especially now: Muslim women.

My Ramadan memories are of women preparing iftars, then sacrificing their own mealtimes to ensure everyone else is fed. I think of my mother, who has an energy I’ll probably never have. And I think of the women I met in Washington, D.C., the first time I ever observed Ramadan away from home, who picked me up and drove me to iftars, or who lined up behind buffet tables in mosque basements with hair nets over their hijabs, kindly, but firmly, instructing me to eat.

Worship is just as important for women as it for men, yet women often shoulder the load of work in Ramadan: it’s an annual discussion, and the stuff of memes on Muslim social media. But the disproportionate division of cooking, childcare and other domestic labour along gender lines is not a Muslim problem, it’s a universal one. In 2018, Statistics Canada reported that, along with participating in paid work and earning money for their families, women also perform a “second shift” of unpaid work, unlike their male counterparts. More recently, with the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, employed women lost 5.4 percent of their usual work hours for family and personal reasons, compared to the 1.1 percent lost by men.

When it comes to keeping a community running, I can’t imagine what this month would look like without women—especially during this pandemic. Here are a few examples of women who stand as pillars for their communities.

Rawan Daoud, nurse, Vermilion, Alta.

Rawan Daoub, a Muslim nurse working through COVID-19 during Ramadan.

(Photo provided)

“Fasting while working consecutive 12 hour shifts is exhausting,” says Daoud, who works at a small rural hospital, via email. “Most of the time, I don’t get to open my fast on time. Maghrib [prayer] is around 9:10 p.m. and I don’t eat till at least 10:30 p.m.” Even with these challenges, the 26-year-old is grateful and proud to be on the frontlines. She says that connecting with patients at a time when most can’t have family at their side is an opportunity to provide better care. “This job makes me appreciative of my health, family and faith,” she says.

Gachi Issa and Sabreina Dahab, volunteers, Hamilton, Ont.

These two McMaster University students work with the Hamilton CareMongering Community, a mutual aid network providing essentials like food and grocery kits, as well as toiletries and menstrual products, for those in need. “[The] community aspect [of Ramadan] is missing, it feels really distant,” Issa, 20, says about the effect of the pandemic. “This month, I’ve been really thinking about Islam and social justice.”

Dahab, 21, agrees. “Striving for justice and pushing for equity in whatever spaces we’re in is a form of worship,” she says. “Maybe we’re not in the mosque worshipping, but we’re finding other ways to serve our community and worship simultaneously.”

Hamida Merchant, property manager, Richmond Hill, Ont.

Volunteers at Crescent Village put together gift bags for Mother’s Day 2020. (Provided by Hamida Merchant)

Crescent Village is a social housing complex in Richmond Hill, Ont., where most of the residents are Muslim. To coincide with Ramadan, Merchant and her team at the complex prepared 150 gift baskets to be distributed to local families in need. They also appointed a senior ambassador who checks in on elderly residents, just one item on an expansive list of COVID-19 related supports.

“We don’t have many rich families here, so anything we can do for them like food supplies really helps them because of Ramadan,” says Merchant. In addition to the gift baskets, fresh produce and nonperishable items are delivered every Monday. Merchant has also collected gift vouchers from mosques to be distributed as gifts for Eid, the feast that comes after this month of fasting. “If I put a smile on any individual living here, it gives me a lot of pleasure,” she says.

Sabrina Akhtar, family physician, Toronto

Working long hours has actually been a helpful distraction, says Akthar. What’s also kept the 36-year-old going is local support, from businesses providing free meals for healthcare staff, to public appreciation for essential workers, from doctors to Uber drivers to grocery store workers.

As for her Ramadan experience, she says she’s grateful for how portable and personal fasting is. “You can get in the way of the largest Vatican mass in the world, you can get in the way of congregation, but even in a global pandemic, you can’t get in the way of a Muslim and their practice of fasting,” she says.

Mim Fatmi, psychiatry resident, Calgary

(Photo provided)

Fatmi says that working from home has made Ramadan easier in some ways, but the loss of a physical community has been difficult. “What’s harder is feeling the Ramadan spirit,” says the 29-year-old. “I really miss the mosque and that environment,” she says. As well as the connection of sharing Ramadan with other Muslims, she misses sharing the ideas and practices of the holy month with non-Muslims.

Fadumo Osman, programmer, Minneapolis, MN

A virtual iftar session. (Provided by Fadumo Osman)

Born in Toronto, Osman is currently based in Minneapolis. This year, the 24-year-old started Remote Iftar, an initiative to combat isolation during the holy month. The platform connects people in the same time zone that are looking for a virtual iftar, so that they don’t have to break fast alone.

Osman notes that while this experience might be new for most of us, many Muslims face isolation regularly, such as parents of young children or those with mobility and ability issues. She says the pandemic has been a chance for the wider community to “feel what [it’s like] to not be as included or celebrate the same.”

Next week is my final column in this series, marking the end of a Ramadan during COVID-19. I’ll be thinking about what Eid—the feast after the fast—will look like this year. Are you preparing anything special to make up for the loss of congregation? Let me know at letters@chatelaine.com or @radiyahch on Twitter.


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