Housework in Ramadan: Normalization of Exploitation under the Pretext of Thawab
By: Suad Asweilem
Housework has been associated throughout history with many classifications and evaluations that have linked it with the “feminine” nature, love, and sacrifice. Robust and massive systems such as capitalism and patriarchy have invested in the success of this propaganda.
Housework is a key pillar for the continuation of these systems, fueling their exploitative mechanisms.
It is difficult to look at housework without linking it to the social, economic, and even cultural context in which it is formed. Cooking, cleaning, and caring methods may vary from one society to another, but what is certain is that since centuries ago, they have become a burden for women alone based on gender divisions.
Feeding the ones who fast… Reward for women only
Exploitation in domestic work is multiplied whenever it is accompanied by sacred values such as “feminine” nature or family duty and sacrifice. In religious contexts, it seems difficult to distinguish between socially imposed roles and religious duties.
Most women during religious rituals, especially during Ramadan, hear that doubling down on domestic work and exerting great effort in preparing food, cleaning, and caring is an essential role in serving this ritual and aiding the fasting people to carry out their religious duty. The woman receives the reward of feeding the fasting people in her house even though she is also fasting!
This discourse has grown throughout history until it reached a point today where many religious views consider that women’s work in the home is in itself a reward that substitutes religious duties for them.
As soon as we look for religious opinions on women’s work, we stumble upon hundreds of fatwas, based on hadiths of the Prophet, that depict women’s feeding to fasting people as a reward or a “thawab”.
Religious normalization of housework. “Women cooking for fasting people is equivalent to reading the Qur’an!”
These fatwas come from most official religious institutions, such as Al-Azhar, whose scholars have produced many opinions on the subject. Among them is Sheikh Ahmed Alwan, who said that women’s preparation of food for their families is included in the reward of feeding the ones who fast.
“If a wife has a husband and two children, she will receive the reward of fasting for three days along with her fasting,” he said.
He also stressed that “the husband’s invitation to relatives and friends to the iftar feast increases the reward,” without taking into account that women alone bear the brunt of this “thawab”.
Most religious scholars point out that men share the reward of feeding the ones who fast as long as they are the spenders!
If housework has a reward equivalent to reading the Qur’an, why don’t men do it?!
As the words of the Saudi Sheikh Khalid Al-Musleh, who equated women’s hours-long preparation of iftar to men’s purchase of supplies. A simple observation of many Muslim families, which do not belong to the rich classes, shows that women work and spend in their homes. They also cook, clean, and prepare the iftar. So any “reward” they receive goes through a trilogy of service, exploitation, and “sacrifice.”
Similarly, Al-Azhar’s page published a religious opinion that considered that “women cooking for fasting people is equivalent to reading the Qur’an”. This has provoked ridicule from many women whom these institutions still see as inferior and underestimate their intelligence.” Many wondered if there is a reward in domestic work equivalent to reading the Qur’an, why don’t men do it?! If there is a reward in preparing the fasting person’s iftar, why doesn’t everyone take turns on it?
Perhaps the answer is found in discretionary fatwas created by men to patch up their exploitation of women and girls. Such as the “fatwa” that promotes: “feeding a fasting person is an act of worship”, and men use it to purify their authority and give it an aura of faith!
Men are angry because they’re hungry, women are happy because they’re preparing food!
Most women in Muslim contexts share similar experiences about the double effort in the month of Ramadan, which is supposed to be a month of worship for all, regardless of their gender.
For the women of the family, however, this month becomes an occasion burdened with responsibilities and the implementation of men’s orders and wishes. Women stand for long hours in the kitchen, exposed to high temperatures, to serve a feast worthy of the “value” of men.
Men consider their fasting from eating and drinking worthy of a reward. They face any request for service, help, or purchase of a substance with complaints under the pretext that they are tired and cannot tolerate the heat outside.
Many men rely on the hadith that says “a fasting person’s sleep is an act of worship” so they snore until a few hours before iftar time, and many use the excuse of not being able to smoke to practice violence and harm, even on the woman standing in the kitchen or walking on the street. They practice their hate rituals by tracking women electronically, evaluating them, mocking them, and giving patriarchal lectures about disrespecting Ramadan. To them, women who do not wear the hijab cause them to exert a great effort to look away and refrain from smoking!
While the women of the family, even the oldest, are supposed to remain calm and provide care services with love and smiles, the voices of children and men intermingle, so that it is difficult to distinguish between them.
In between, women should also consider the task of preparing multiple meals and putting extra effort into cleaning as something they enjoy and find comfort in.
Most women often hear the phrase “Why don’t you laugh? A smile is a gift!”, after a long day of standing in the kitchen.
It is a question that always comes from people who think that smiling is part of the role assigned to women, and sometimes even denounce her complaining about housework or her trying to take a break from her household chores.
While serving the food, a woman must offer smiles to reflect her gratitude for having family and her grace at serving it! This is how women avoid the accusation of bad temperament and irritating fasting people. They should be grateful for the thanks given to them by the men of the family, rather than having men contribute and take part in the work.
Recipes and instructions with patriarchal flavor
This is not just about private “patriarchal” settings. Public settings, along with television stations and online platforms that reproduce patriarchal discourses, also promote a culture aimed at taming women and girls.
Let’s take, for example, instructions specifically addressed to women about their “supposed work” inside the kitchen.
Such as advertisements and articles that talk about “the fastest ways to keep your home clean in Ramadan”, “how to stay active at home during Ramadan”, or “how to do household chores without getting tired in Ramadan”.
Receiving instructions and guidelines is something familiar to women throughout the year, but their impact increases in the month of Ramadan, within frameworks and rules that ensure that housework remains “feminine” and unappreciated.
In between, men spread their criticisms and perceptions of cooking in gatherings that include exaggerated talking about their fatigue at work outside the home!
Competition is widespread among women themselves, as an inevitable consequence of the normalization of housework and its gendering. The competition goes beyond preparing various dishes to win patriarchal “honor” titles, like competing for the title of the maker of the most flawless feast.
Patriarchy prepares us for these roles systematically by training us to flaunt being excellent “housewives.” So we get prepared to show expert knowledge about stereotypical interests that have been forcibly associated with us, such as excellence in cooking and hygiene.
It is thus proof of our “cleverness” and our entitlement to “femininity” within patriarchy.
Stop normalizing sacrifice
There is little talk about the significant psychological impact that women are exposed to during Ramadan due to inattentiveness to their issues, or because they are never seen outside the role of providing care and food.
The problem has never been about care, as an intimate and social act or something in which we offer love to those we care about, but rather in how it is structurally shaped and presented to us through institutions, from the family to society, the state, to religious and media institutions.
The problem is in the normalization of sacrifice and exploitation as part of our nature.
Food preparation is portrayed as an “act of worship” that belongs only to women. Not to mention making their fatigue and effort a normal “habit”, in which men do not bother to participate!
This is why feminist action aiming at dismantling gendered care is an urgent necessity to save what is left of our sense of each other, as women, and what is left of our ability to live together with men.
Domestic workers at greater risk of exploitation
The suffering from housework is not only due to genderism but also classism and racism.
Instead of finding a solution to women’s suffering from the “feminization” of domestic work and gender-based exploitation in care, some have resorted to hiring other women to do the job “for them.”
They thus created a classist authority that subjected domestic workers to compound exploitation and violence.
Domestic workers bear not only the burden of gender-hierarchical domestic work but also the violence, abuse, and class exploitation that makes most of them rather “enslaved.”
In Ramadan, the exploitation of domestic workers is doubled, especially in the countries with the new system of slavery, known as kafala (sponsorship).
Domestic workers are required to work longer hours, which may extend in Ramadan from iftar to suhoor (sunset to dawn). They also face maltreatment due to widespread racism, classism, and inferior looks.
Religious occasions should be a space for spirituality, not for exacerbating crises, exploitation, patriarchy, investing in social inequalities, and spreading the values of consumerism, appearances, and classism.