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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Muslim women face special challenges during Ramadan fast

By Niraj Warikoo
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
If Zarinah El-Amin Naeem, 32, with her son, Isa, does not fast because she is nursing, she will do something to feed the poor.
If Zarinah El-Amin Naeem, 32, with her son, Isa, does not fast because she is nursing, she will do something to feed the poor. / KATHLEEN GALLIGAN/Detroit Free Press

Zarinah El-Amin Naeem isn't sure she'll be able to fast throughout Ramadan this year.

The 32-year-old Redford Township woman looks forward to the Islamic holy month, which began Thursday night for many Muslims who seek spiritual renewal during Ramadan and fast. But because she is nursing her 1-year-old son, Isa, she's not sure if she can safely do so. Islam doesn't require fasting during Ramadan if it harms one's health.

"For my friends who are nursing or pregnant, it's a topic of discussion: 'Will you fast? Are you going to try?' " she said.

Naeem's dilemma is just one example of the challenges women face during Ramadan, when Muslims believe their holy book, the Quran, was first revealed to their prophet, Muhammad. While the obligations of Ramadan, such as abstaining from food and water from sunrise to sunset, are the same for men, women often find themselves in situations -- from raising children to cooking big Ramadan dinners -- where fasting can be especially difficult.

Not everyone is required to fast during Ramadan.

Young children, elderly people, those with illnesses, women who are pregnant or nursing, and travelers are all exempt from fasting, said Imam Mohammed Elahi, religious leader of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights.

Naeem is "thinking about trying to fast, as long as my son is OK. ... If my milk supply doesn't drop really low, I will do it, but if it does," she won't, though she will cut out things "like sweets, desserts."

If Naeem doesn't fast, per Islamic custom she will pay to feed poor people: She might bring food to her mosque, the Muslim Center in Detroit, that will be given to needy people.

For Naeem, Ramadan is "a time to learn self-restraint and discipline, learning that your body is stronger. Your mind is stronger than your physical needs. If you can get through Ramadan -- especially from 4:30 to 9 p.m. -- you can get through anything."

Also exempt from fasting are women who are menstruating. But, during Ramadan, some women take birth control pills to regulate their menstrual cycle so they can continue to fast, said Naeem.

"It's interesting that women want to fast so much -- even though they don't have to -- that they would go to the length of having birth control during the month," she said.

Cooking, too, can be a challenge. During Ramadan, meals known as iftars bring together families and friends; for women who are fasting, that can mean long hours preparing meals. Some also have to feed children -- who are exempt from fasting -- while avoiding food themselves.

"It's an extra level of discipline that's required when you have kids," Naeem said.

Zeinab Chami, 28, of Dearborn agreed. "Women do a lot of cooking -- and they're around food. That's not easy."

But the women say there's a sense of satisfaction in putting together meals during a holy season that puts an emphasis on spiritual reflection.

"You're shifting your focus," said Chami. "You're quenching your spiritual thirst as opposed to your physical thirst and hunger."

Ramadan starts 10 days earlier every year because it's based on a lunar calendar; that makes it more of a challenge this year because summer days are long, forcing observant Muslims to go 15 hours (about 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.) without food or water. Record temperatures this year make it even more of an effort.

"It's very difficult during the summer" to fast, said Chami, a high school teacher.

Lucky for her, Ramadan falls during her vacation so she can adjust her schedule. "I get to flip my days," she said. "I will stay up all night and sleep during the daytime.

"It's still difficult, though," she added, because the "thirst is overwhelming in the summertime. ... The thirst is more of an issue than hunger."

But compared to what others around the world face, most Muslims in metro Detroit can't complain, Chami said.

Many "have AC at home and at work; we're not doing any strenuous activity," she said.
Women also watch their health in the weeks leading up to Ramadan.

Most of the year, Zahra Zaarour of Dearborn enjoys three cups of regular coffee a day.

But at the beginning of this month, Zaarour switched to half-decaf and half-regular, and a week ago to all decaf. Zaarour knew that unless she kicked her caffeine habit, she would be faced with a throbbing head.

"I learned my lesson last year," said Zaarour, 26, a social worker. "You can't go cold turkey or else you get those unbearable headaches."

For Fadia Farhat, 43, of Dearborn, the hardest part of the day comes in the afternoon. She works, but also is raising her children and cooking iftar meals.

"In the morning, you're OK, you don't feel like eating," said Farhat, who works at a recreation center. "But by midday, your body starts to want fluids, caffeine."

Like Zaarour, Farhat sometimes gets "that caffeine headache, a migraine."

Though fasting all day can make someone grouchy, it's considered un-Islamic to use Ramadan as an excuse for bad manners.

"When you get hungry, you get cranky," Farhat said. "And I deal with people all day. I try to speak properly and avoid bad manners."

"God will not accept your fast if you're lashing out and snapping at people," Zaarour said. "He's trying to teach you self-discipline and self-control."

Contact Niraj Warikoo: 313-223-4792 or

Source: Detroit Free Press

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