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Fasting During Ramadan is ‘Challenging’ in Non-Muslim Countries

So begins the holy month of Ramadan for more than 1.6 billion Muslims around the world

FILE - Indian Muslims offer Eid al-Fitr prayers in the shade of a petrol filling station as they join others offering prayers in an open area in Hyderabad, India, June 16, 2018. VOA

For the next 30 days, Tarannum Mansouri will arise at 3 a.m. at her home in Vadodara, India, being careful not to awaken her toddler son. She will bathe and then join the other women in her family in the kitchen to prepare the morning meal.

A filling breakfast of homemade bread, vegetables, perhaps a chicken curry and fruit will be washed down with tea by 4:30 a.m., before the break of day. So begins the holy month of Ramadan for more than 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, when Muslims believe the holy Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel in the seventh century. It is a month of fasting, prayer and reflection for Muslims. It is a time when practicing Muslims refrain from all food, drink, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset.

“It is a holy month,” says Hibo Wardere of London. A month “that you are dedicating to God.” The last 10 days of Ramadan are considered the most holy. “That is when the seven steps to heaven are open,” Wardere adds. The most important is Laylat al-Qadr, or the “Night of Power,” believed to be the holiest night of the year.

“It is a night everybody stays awake” and prays, she says. “It means all your prayers will be heard, it means all your sins will be forgiven, it means you will get what you dreamed of.” Islam takes into account that not everyone is able or willing to fast during Ramadan. Children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are exempt from fasting.

Others who are old or ill can also forego fasting, but they must feed one poor person for each day of a missed fast. The practice is called fidya and how much it costs depends on where one lives.

In the U.S., “it comes out to $10 per day or $300 for the month,” says Minhaj Hassan of the nonprofit charity Islamic Relief USA. In Britain, Islamic Relief UK has set the daily rate of fidya at 5 pounds or 150 pounds for the month.

On the other hand, “kaffarah is paid by individuals who miss a fast for no good reason,” says Hassan. “The amount is $600 a day, or feeding 60 people in need (the Arabic term is miskeen).” In Britain, the price is 300 pounds per day. One can also atone for a missed or deliberately broken fast by fasting for 60 straight days.

Observance in non-Muslim countries

Fasting during Ramadan is “a million times more difficult” in a non-Muslim country “than back home,” says Wardere, who is from Somalia but has lived in London for most of her life.

In the U.S., an estimated 3.2 million Muslims will fast during Ramadan, a small number compared to the 327 million population. By contrast, a 2013 Pew Research Center study shows 94% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa fast for the month.

​”The practice of fasting in Muslim nations is presumably much more common during Ramadan, since there are likely to be more practicing Muslims,” says Hassan. “And fasting is a part of the daily culture during this month. Thus, if people you know are fasting, you’re likely to do the same.”

Palestinians check a shop selling Ramadan lights in the old city of Jerusalem, May 4, 2019, as Muslims around the world prepare for the announcement of the fasting month of Ramadan which is expected to start on May 5 or 6 depending on the crescent moon. VOA

Most Muslim countries also make it easier for people to fast. Across the Middle East, Ramadan must be observed in public. Which means, even non-Muslims must refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public. In most of these countries, religious police patrol the streets and violators are usually punished. Most cafes, restaurants and clubs are closed during the day although some hotels serve food in screened-in areas or through room service.

Most public offices and schools are closed and private businesses are encouraged to cut back their hours to accommodate the fasters.

“Being part of an environment or community where fasting is encouraged and accommodated can increase the likelihood of people fasting successfully,” Hassan says. “In some Muslim countries, accommodations are provided for fasting, which may not always be the case in the West” or in other non-Muslim nations.

“Observing Ramadan as a minority has its challenges. But it is not significant enough to make it impossible to fast,” says Naeem Baig of the Islamic Circle of North America. He says it is made easier because “people from other faiths generally are respectful and supportive towards their Muslim colleagues or neighbors.”

Making accommodations

Mansouri, in India, will have to accommodate her fasting while spending weekdays at her job as a teacher in a Hindu school. She says she will try to keep herself busy so as not to think of food when teachers and children take their lunch break.

Similarly, Baig says, “We encourage Muslim parents to inform the schools their children attend and let the teachers know that their children will not be going for lunch break. In most public schools, Muslim children of fasting age can go to the library during lunch and are exempt from PE (physical education).”

Organizations such as the nonprofit Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding work with businesses to help them accommodate the needs of those observing Ramadan.

FILE – A man offers Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan outside a railway station, in Mumbai, India, June 16, 2018. VOA

“Muslim employees observing Ramadan may be fasting during this period. Some may request scheduling accommodations and your company may find that more employees require space for prayer during this time,” writes the group’s deputy CEO, Mark Fowler, on its website.

He encourages his clients to avail themselves to the group’s fact sheet regarding scheduling, dietary restriction, and greetings during Ramadan.​

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Ramadan 2019

Muslims in the West, Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, and much of the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, will begin observing Ramadan on Monday. But millions in India, Pakistan and Iran will likely be marking the start of the lunar month on Tuesday, based on moon sightings there.

Ramadan will end on June 3 or June 4, depending on when it started. After 30 days, Ramadan ends with a three-day celebration known as Eid al-Fitr, when families and friends get together, exchange gifts and feast. (VOA)

Next Story

FGM is Embraced as a Traditional Practice in Indonesia: Research

Study: Indonesians Embrace Female Genital Mutilation as Religious, Traditional Practice

Indonesian girls with their mother leaving a school-hall-turned-clinic after the daughters were circumcised in Bandung. The Indonesian government has come under fire after the UN General Assembly in November passed its first resolution condemning female genital mutilation (FGM) which more than 140 million women worldwide have been subjected to. Kania was later circumcised. VOA

By Nurhadi Sucahyo

With a knife, a razor blade, scissors or a needle, half of Indonesia’s girls are circumcised, and a new study found that it is a tradition more rooted in family folkways than religion.

“Cultural reproduction occurs in the household,” said Sri Purwatiningsih, a researcher of Center for Population and Policy Studies at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta. “Circumcised grandmothers tend to circumcise their daughter. A mother who was circumcised by the grandmothers will most likely circumcise their daughter.”

Purwatiningsih presented her findings Thursday, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, at the university, where the center refers to the procedure as female genital mutilation or cutting.

Indonesia ranks third in the world, at 49%, for the rate of prevalence of female circumcision, after Mali, at 83%, and Mauritania, at 51%. According to an Indonesian Basic Health Research study from 2013, 51% of the nation’s girls up to the age of 11 have been circumcised. Among them, 72.4% were circumcised at between 1 and 5 months, 13.9% when they were between 1 and 4 years old, and 3.3% were 5 to 11 years old.

A man shows the logo of a T-shirt that reads “Stop the Cut” referring to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) during a social event advocating against harmful practices such as FGM at the Imbirikani Girls High School in Imbirikani, Kenya. VOA

UN definition

Female genital mutilation refers to “any procedure involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genitals for nonmedical reasons,” according to the United Nations Population Fund. The most widespread practices worldwide involve partial or total removal of the clitoris, prepuce, or both, and the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora. The UNPF found the practice is linked to child marriage and said it “predates rise of Christianity and Islam,” and was practiced as recently as the 1950s in Western Europe and the United States because a clitoridectomy was performed “to treat perceived ailments, including mental and sexual disorders.”

More than an estimated 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation, and “the impacts on their health and well-being can be immediate — from infections, bleeding or psychological trauma — to chronic health conditions that can occur throughout life,” according to a U.N. release. It continued to say, “the cost of treating the total health impacts” of female genital mutilation is $1.4 billion globally per year.

“FGM is not only a catastrophic abuse of human rights that significantly harms the physical and mental health of millions of girls and women; it is also a drain on a country’s vital economic resources,” said Dr. Ian Askew, director of the World Health Organization’s Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research on a U.N. website.

Indonesian study

A survey focused on Indonesian girls and women, conducted by the Center for Population and Policy Studies in 2017, found 87.3% of 4,250 households in 10 provinces obtained female circumcision information from their parents. Of those surveyed, 92.7% said they believed the practice was primarily religious and 84.1% said the practice is also traditional. An overwhelming majority of respondents, 97.8%, approved of female circumcision, saying the tradition should be practiced.

The survey also found that traditional Indonesian birth attendants were responsible for 45% of female circumcisions, midwives or nurses conducted 38%, female circumcision specialists performed 10%, and doctors performed 1%.

Hamim Ilyas, a professor at the Faculty of Sharia and Law at Islamic National University Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta told VOA Indonesia that only those who interpret Islam in the most literal way can find justification for female circumcision in its teachings.

He considers the best approach to the issue to be “state based,” meaning families should obey Indonesia’s laws. He used traffic lights as an example, religion never taught a person to stop at a red light, but the signal represents a law that drivers know to obey.

“The minister of health’s regulation has forbidden FGM. … However, the government seems to be hesitant under pressure,” from fundamentalist sectors of Indonesian society, he said. “If the government is determined, if the government is brave, the practice can be eradicated. But the government seems not ready yet [to enforce the law] because the people are not ready yet. We have to change our society, to be a society that anti-FGM. It is through the transformation of religious understanding — not [by] changing the teaching, but changing the understanding of it.”

Indonesian doctor preparing to circumcise a female child in Bandung. VOA

Indonesian law

Ika Ayu, an activist at the Jaringan Perempuan Yogyakarta, or Yogyakarta Female Network, criticized the government’s indecisiveness on FGM, as even Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the country’s top Muslim clerical body, rejected the practice in 2008.

Despite the Ministry of Health regulations, she said, “The government has not ever been clear in regulating FGM, while we know FGM has been listed as harmful practice as part of [the U.N.’s] Sustainable Development Goals.”

She urged the government to be more decisive and added, “Today, we commemorate zero tolerance for female genital mutilation, but in practice, it is still being done. We should ask, ‘How can a country guarantee the fulfillment of every citizen’s rights?’ Female circumcision violates individual rights because it was done without the girls’ consent.”

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Dr. Mukhotib, a reproductive health activist who, like many Indonesians uses only one name, told VOA that the many reasons to reject female circumcision include the fact that it has no medical benefit, countering traditional beliefs.

“There is no benefit to FGM. It does not make women healthier,” he said. “If there is no medical benefit, why bother?” (VOA)