Preparing for Ramadan!

Not having fasted for the last two years because of pregnancy and nursing, I have to admit I was nervous about fasting this year. For one, the fasts will be incredibly long. Sunrise to sunset (roughly from 3am to 9pm) would be 18 hours. My second concern was not having properly participated in Ramadan for the last two years, I may have lost my ‘Ramadan spirit’.

So in search of some motivation and inspiration, this Friday I attended an event in London called ‘Your Best Ramadan Yet’ organised by City Circle. The event featured a talk by Shaikh Haytham Tamim of Uttruj Foundation, followed by practical fasting and health related advice by two medical doctors.

While for some the talk may have lacked the ‘wow’ factor, I got from it exactly what I was looking for.

The main point which the Shaikh drilled into the audience was about the purpose of fasting. Why do we fast? According to him, the abstention from our desires is a prerequisite to connecting with our spirituality. Or in other words, it is only when we silence the constant ‘I want this, I need that’ that we can connect with God.

This is the shared link between salah (prayer), haj and fasting. Through all these acts of worship, we try to create a space for ourselves (physically and mentally), where we can take refuge from the onslaught of our desires, the constant consumerism and media messaging telling us to indulge ourselves in this and that. Although this may sound like an obvious point but a lot of us forget this during our ritual prayers and while fasting. Ramadan is about the victory of the spiritual self over the material one, ultimately restoring the balance between the two.

Inspired by the talk, I vowed to keep my ‘wants’ in check, whether these are for buying things, cravings for junk food or never being satisfied with anything in life. Instead of always wanting and whining, I want to create sabr (patience) and contentment. In trying to live this ideal, I’m finding out how difficult it is.  Take a very small example: I decided to gradually cut down my calorie intake in the lead up to Ramadan. I’m ashamed to report that one day spent at the mall was enough to throw all my good intentions out the window. But I’ll persevere.

Another point raised during the talk which I really appreciated was that we should never forget the power of the mind and how resilient our bodies are. A lot of us have been grumbling about how difficult this coming Ramadan would be. But we forget that if we enter something with a negative perception and anticipation, we will most likely find the experience to be negative. However, if we create a positive mindset and send positive signals to our body, we may radically shift our experience. Positive thinking- feeling hopeful and excited about something- goes a long way in shaping our actual experience.

Finally, being a woman and a mother I also appreciated the acknowledgment on the part of the speaker that sometimes (especially in traditional families and cultures) Ramadan for women amounts to preparing and cooking food all day and clearing up at night while the men go for taraweeh prayers. We really need to take our focus away from this attitude of ‘feasting’ at iftaars and also share the responsibilities with women. He went so far as to say that during the last ten days of Ramadan (considered to be a special time of quiet reflection and prayer) women should not cook at all and families should have take aways. He may have been exaggerating his stance just to drive home the point that women should also focus on their spirituality.

The challenge for me to is to find quiet time for myself when my whole day is consumed with childcare responsibilities and in keeping my super curious 16 month old entertained and out of trouble. The only quiet time I have is the two hours of his nap during the afternoon. Generally I spend this time in mindless pursuits like facebooking and watching tv, or doing essential stuff like cooking or showering. I tend to shy away from any activity that may require me to use my grey cells. I realise that this is an excuse to be lazy.

I hope in Ramadan I can counter this attitude that ‘my day is not mine’ and take control of my time. Instead of forcing my baby to fit into my routine or being totally driven by his, I need to find a balance. For example, while he may not allow me to use my laptop (he wants it himself), I could listen to audiobooks or recitation of the Quran in the background while I perform other tasks. If you have any advice or tips to share with me on how I can achieve this balance, please do share!

Ramadan Mubarak everyone!



Ramadan and Work

I posted this on my work blog and people found it really useful. The target audience are mainly non-Muslims.

Muslims all over the world are fasting these days in the Islamic month of Ramadan. Muslims follow the lunar calendar and it is for that reason that Ramadan is not at the same time each year. Fasting is not unique to Islam, it is found in Judaism (on the Day of Atonement) and is practiced during Lent by Christians. It is also common in many non-Abrahamic faiths as well.

Muslims have a meal in the morning before the dawn breaks and begin fasting when the crack of dawn appears, which is as early as 3:30am (in UK) for the first few days of Ramadan. The fast ends as the sunset begins. Muslims offer short prayers during the day and also attend special congregational prayers in the evening which are normally held at fixed times. Fasting demands refraining from not only food, drink, and intimacy but also form vain talk, lying, backbiting, slander, tale-carrying and the like.
All Muslims are expected to fast except children, unhealthy adults (mentally or physically), adults travelling long distances, and women who are menstruating, in post-childbirth care, pregnant or breast-feeding.

Fasting at Work:
In pressured business environments, people who are fasting often work exceptionally hard in the month of Ramadan, ensuring that business and client needs are met in addition to their daily pre and post working obligations. Naturally, there is a need to maintain a sensible work/life balance.

Also the unusual sleeping pattern demands a flexible working pattern for some. Flexible hours have been a success in some Service units as employees can start early and leave early, working the same number of hours. Individuals who are fasting also do not take many of the usual daily breaks for eating and drinking during Ramadan.

So, if someone in your team is fasting, it is advised to discuss and agree on a working pattern for the month.

If you have any queries regarding the month of Ramadan, please feel free to contact the Accenture Muslim Interest Group.

Ramadan Mubarak.


There are certain habits of mine that I had thought were incurable. They had almost taken the status of ‘beliefs’ about myself, such as “I am a procrastinator”, “I can never be on time”, “I cannot wake up for fajr” and its related “I’m not a morning person”.

Recently my sister Wardah taught me a very important lesson: We should not make ‘bad habits’ excuses for not doing the things we know are important.

Just to give an example: Wardah told me that sometime back she had vowed that no matter what time she slept, she will wake up for Fajar prayer (performed before sunrise). And after getting over her mental hangups–such as it won’t be possible on nights with just 2 or 3 hours of sleep; or broken sleep would cause lack of concentration in exams; or she wouldn’t even hear the alarm etc etc), she was able to do it regularly once she had made up her mind.

For years now, I had been missing my Fajar prayer and performing it only if I stayed up all night or if I had to wake super early for some reason or praying it kazaa occasionally. It was something that bugged me but I had just taken it for granted that because I had bad sleeping habits, it was impossible to wake up early for fajr. Also I have always had ‘sleep issues’. I fuss if I am not able to sleep properly, I worry about broken sleep, I get grouchy and ‘homicidal’ (to quote a previous roommate!) if someone wakes me up when I don’t want to be woken up etc etc. But after realizing that Wardah, who had also previously been hung up about similar ‘sleep issues’, had been able to overcome them, I felt confident that I could do the same. I’m proud to say that it has worked for me too. I’ve been waking up very regularly for fajar and going back to sleep if I have the time or even staying awake afterwards (since fajar these days can be prayed till about 7 anyway) and I have been fine. In fact I’ve been happier and more content and better able to plan my day.

Today I was 15 minutes late for a seminar. Although there were 2 other people who came later than me, I was absolutely mortified and hated myself for it. Punctuality is a mark of a principled person. I had just taken for granted that I was incapable of always being punctual. Especially in the UK, where people are almost always on time, it’s considered rude/unprofessional/and downright rotten to be late for something. So today I promised myself that I will not be late for any other meeting…even if it’s a casual lunch or dinner or whatever. It is something I’ve been struggling with for years. Although I manage to make it to formal meetings or interviews etc on time, it’s usually just in the nick of time with me huffing and puffing (yeah imagine what great first impressions I must make!). And for other informal things, I’m usually late unless someone forces me not to be. Anyway, today I’ve decided enough is enough. This is not an incurable aspect about my personality. If I can overcome my sleep issues, I can also overcome this.

I WILL NOT BE LATE! No more snoozes, no more last minute checking of emails, no more procrastination. Yes, I can do this.

Me and the Mosque

turkey mosque
The beautiful Sakirin mosque in Istanbul built by a female designer, Zeynep Fadillioglu, who made sure the women had equal access to the space and facilities.

There are some things that just stick in your memory and form a part of your subconscious– almost a lens through which you view the world, having forgotten when or even if you had put it on.

This past Friday, I became conscious of one such lens that I carry around with me when I went to Wembley mosque after a long time. I felt like I didn’t gain much from my prayer because of the cramped space and less-than-perfect shape the women’s room and outer courtyard was in (I haven’t seen the men’s side, so I have no idea what it’s like). If it had just been the superficialities of it, I might have been more compromising and understanding, but for me it struck a deeper nerve. It reminded me of all the times I’ve gone to a mosque and been unhappy with the facilities provided to women. So much so that sometimes I’m overly critical even when the facilities for men are just as bad (as Asim attests is the case at Wembley mosque. Or in other words, “it’s nothing personal against women, don’t be so over-sensitive”). Wembley mosque is tiny and insufficient for the number of people who come to pray. I was standing outside and entirely missed the khutbah in just trying to figure out whether I should wait outside or go in or wait for the next prayer that would be in 20 minutes.

It’s hard for me to articulate all the things that annoyed me but for a start let me recount my experience of ‘brothers’ at mosques. Either they’re overly helpful telling me to “Try to squeeze in, Jazakallah” when I’m waiting outside for the next prayer to start…or they’re not at all helpful; crowding out all the exits in the courtyard because they are more in number. Even though they see a small group of women inching towards the exit, they don’t have the patience to wait and let them cross– knowing well that we can’t or won’t jostle and elbow our way through. I was stubborn (read: dheet and besharam) enough to walk into the throng and loudly exclaim “excuse me” whereby some old gentleman said “let the ladies cross please”, but other than my other big African sisters who followed my example, I doubt many other women would have done that. It’s a small incident, but it put me in a foul mood.

On the way back recounting this to Asim, he thought I was being a bit over critical since the major issue was that of the size of the mosque and the resources available to them rather than sexist attitudes. I wondered why I was never able to let go of this critical stance that I carried with me into mosques and why I was always analyzing the facilities for women rather than just focusing on my prayer. Sometimes I worry I probably get no spiritual benefit of going to a mosque and just get hung up on this aspect.

me and the mosqueThat’s when I remembered a documenary by a Canadian filmmaker called Zarqa Nawaz titled “Me and the Mosque” that I had seen many years ago at McGill. It must have had a very profound influence on me as I still remember it and can’t shake off my quest for women-friendly mosques. The documentary is very well-made and has a light narrative style exploring the place of women in mosques in North America and particularly Canada by focusing on “discussions about the historical role of women in the Islamic faith, the current state of mosques in Canada and personal stories of anger, fear, acceptance and defiance… And Nawaz herself speaks of the spiritual longing that comes from belonging to an institution that doesn’t want you” (National Film Board of Canada). One of the themes that struck me was how generally all over the world the space for women at mosques was not as accommodating as it had been during the time of the Prophet. All these barriers and strict segregation hadn’t been a feature of the Prophet’s mosque.

Seeing this documentary at university, around the same time when Amina Wadud led prayers in America and created a huge furore and controversy, articulated many of the frustrations I would feel going to the mosque and still do. For those who don’t know, Aminda Wadud led a Friday prayer of a mixed congregation of over 100 men and women in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on March 18, 2005, “breaking with the tradition of having only male imams (prayer leaders). Three mosques had refused to host the service and the museum that had agreed to host it pulled out after a bomb threat”, as my wiki search confirms. This event for me was a watershed in terms of my search of women’s place in Islamic leadership, in mosques and beyond, and just generally trying to understand why women couldn’t be imams and what sort of cultural or theological issues were at stake. I must have frustrated my circle of close friends who had to listen to me day in and day out asking and trying to answer the same questions. I think some of them perhaps considered them heretical, but most were quite accepting and we had long and heated debates. I found like-minded friends too who shared my concerns (through my Women’s Studies courses, especially a course called “Women in Judaism and Islam”).

This was the cover of a McGill Daily article featuring a peaceful sit-in the MSA had organized to protest infront of the administration building. I was also there.
This was the cover of a McGill Daily article featuring a peaceful sit-in the MSA had organized to protest infront of the administration building. I was also there.

Ironically for me this was not the best time at McGill to be raising women’s issues at the mosque or prayers, since even the right to pray had been taken away by the university administration. Muslim students on campus had had a prayer space (musallah) for many years from which we were evicted on grounds of secularism and we went on many protests and meetings trying to contest the administration’s stance, to the extent of even lodging a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission, to no avail. So when we didn’t even have a space to pray, it was almost besides the point to be arguing over whether women could lead the prayer or whether they should stand beside men or behind them. I just did a quick search and it seems unfortunately the issue has still not been resolved after all these years. Many universities and colleges in Canada provide students with multi-faith prayer rooms, open to everyone not just Muslims, (which is what the McGill MSA had been asking for) but that was not accepted by the McGill administration.

A friend recently wrote an article on the “30 mosques project” that two young men in New York undertook to pray at a different mosque every day of Ramadan. I thought it was such a wonderful idea and yet I couldn’t help but think that if the ‘experiment’ had been carried out by one man and one woman, perhaps their experiences would have been completely different. Or perhaps not, perhaps I’m the only cynic out there. It made me ponder on my own experiences at London’s different mosques this Ramadan. I went for Taraweeh to Harrow mosque (the brand new mosque that was targeted by the BNP demonstrators a few weeks ago) and was again disappointed that even at a mosque of that size, women were again confined to a small narrow strip on the side of the prayer hall. Granted the mosque is under construction and more men than women come for taraweeh prayers, but it was still disappointing. Hopefully once the mosque is complete, it would have a more women-friendly space. One of the mosques, I liked praying at this Ramadan was the East London LMC where we could see the imam from the top balcony while we prayed. Regent’s mosque is really nice as well and while I enjoyed the iftaar and prayer, it’s sometimes too crowded with screaming children galore to highten your spirituality.

In countries like Pakistan, it is very hard to even find mosques that have a space for women. So many of us growing up in the South Asian context, never went to the mosque and were told that women should pray at home. It was only after we went to Umrah or went abroad that we went to the mosque or congregational prayers. So initially having any room or space, no matter how inadequate, seemed like a vast improvement. But over time I realized that it wasn’t enough. Not only did we have a right to access mosques, we also had a right to pray in the main hall or at least have access to the khutba and imam in the same way as men did. I remember seeing photos of mosques in Indonesia (if I remember correctly then the Istiqlal Mosque allows women to pray in the main prayer hall) and wanted more mosques to become women-friendly, whether it meant having childcare centers or allowing women to pray in the main hall or being able to get in touch with the imam easily.

Ideally, I would like men and women to be able to pray in the main hall, segregated but side by side rather than women behind the men. I would also like women to be able to lead prayers and become imams and leaders at mosques. I want mosques to become community centers, being open and inviting to men, women, children and non-Muslims…anyone who wants to go. I love the feeling of community and spirituality one gets in big open spaces where you pray with others. These spaces are hard to find when one is living in the diaspora in a Muslim minority country and ironically exist in Muslim majority countries but not always accessible to women. I wish our community in the UK can reach a point of self-sufficiency of having these spaces where women feel welcome as well.