Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Something I wrote last Ramadan.

I hope this Ramadan is different.

I just read the British Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary’s Ramadan messages and I was both impressed by their decision to send such a touching message to Muslims around the world and felt the need to reply.

According to their messages, “Ramadan is a time for family and friends. A time when Muslims around the world focus on more than themselves. It is a time for charity and giving – the outward expressions of faith through acts of kindness and love, to complement the inner devotion and prayer.” I agree it all a time for all the above and equally wish all the Muslim everywhere a blessed Ramadan.

Having said that and speaking from experience, Ramadan is not necessarily a blessed month for every Muslim. I wish I experienced any kind of blessing growing up in a Muslim family. Sadly, Ramadan was more like a cursed month for me and probably for many other Muslim women and young girls around the world. In the house I grew up, it was a month from hell for the younger girls, we cooked, cleaned and slaved for all the adults sometimes for more than 16 hours a day with little rest! We worked under harsh conditions while fasting in the African heat.

Every time I think of Ramadan instead of missing it and wishing I was a practicing Muslim, I am so grateful I never have to cook and clean after almost 20 adults while fasting and in a way if is partly why I have not fasted for the last 10 years. I have a nasty memory of it all and it is a real shame I associate pain with a month that is suppose to be a spiritual and cleansing experience.

I can’t think of a crueller thing than making a fasting child shop for food everyday of Ramadan and walk for miles to the market, carrying a heavy basket back to the house to spend hours in the hot kitchen cooking in over 35C heat! What is so giving and charitable about that? Growing up we were brainwashed with stories like all ‘kind’ acts, including cooking for fasting people is supposedly a religious act and God will reward you for it. I always wondered why it was that adults did not volunteer to get a share of this reward by doing some of the endless domestic chores.

The work load was punishing. It started early in the morning around 2am cooking “Suhuur”, the last meal before sunrise. We cooked anything from: rice and stew, pasta and source, rice and yogurt or maize meal. We made coffee, tea and variety of natural juices, in the middle of the night! After cleaning up we took few hours nap before getting up again around 4:30 to wake everyone up and feed them. Imagine the responsibility not only to cook but also to make sure everyone is woken up before 5 and then served, one by one. No one ever showed up in the kitchen to pick up their meal either. They would reluctantly get up, wash their faces and pick a seat in the living room or outside and wait for their meals. Once we finished serving everyone between 4:30 and 5:00, we ate our meals and of course, cleaned all the dishes as no one was going to clean theirs. Especially the boys, they practically had a free life with no responsibility beyond looking after themselves.

On top of the cooking and cleaning duties, we did all the household chores while fasting. There were no machines to make the work load easier, no washing machine, dish washer, vacuum cleaner, nothing. Everything was done manually by the youngest and physically weakest, the girls. Act of kindness, did they say? Is Ramadan really a time of giving spirit and thinking of others and those less fortunate or has it become a routine thing you do without thinking the harm your actions might do to others? Looking back I can not believe this was (and still is) an acceptable practice among some Muslims. I am sure not every Somali or Muslim families behaved that way.

People looked forward to Ramadan but us girls dreaded it and could not wait for it to end. We had to steal sleep here and there to make sure we got at least 5 hours sleep in 24 hours.

I hope this Ramadan, no little girl will be weighed down with domestic work and deprived of sleep looking after the grown ups in the name of Allah while everyone else focuses on ‘cleaning their sins’ for the previous 11 months.

Ramadan Karim to you all and especially to all the little girls out there.


  1. As a former beneficiary of that system, I should admit that poor girls slaved for days on end with very little respite. I think the problem is rooted in the separation of gender roles. The girls themselves were no angels. Offers to help with cooking were almost always turned down with excuses of making a mess in the kitchen and were at times met with screams and accusations of wanting to steal Samosas! So petty I thought.

    Having been shamed once, i vowed to never again step a foot in the kitchen…and the girls served us diligently. As a grown up whose had to reverse roles now, I appreciate how difficult it must have been for them. I often drag myself out of bed to get Sahur and on my way to the kitchen stumble and knock down everything on my path. i just cant imagine doing that every night..

  2. Fatuma - I am glad you ended your blog by saying that not every family behaved this way. It all dependents on whether you are the first, middle or last in the family. I was last and I didn't do more than help. Yahya is right, the problem is rooted in the gender separation. This year I started my Ramadan in Mogadishu, I spent the first week there and I must say, I resented cooking (with the women or girls) for those men, I convinced my sister that isn't her right to get up and cook in the middle of the night. We said, everyone should eat dinner at 10 and that is the end of it. Barakalah fikum.... nagu kala wada.

    The problem isn't just the Ramadan, its the taking (faraxal) a bowl of water for them to wash their hand, and then take another one with soup.... I kept saying with the full knowledge that the men could hear me, are they disable why can't they come and get the water etc. I am sure those men are happy that I left!

  3. Lol@Sadia, I am also sure they were happy to see your "corrupted Western" version of former Somali woman out of their "respectable and traditional" way of life.