But food has a material reality behind it. It takes immense effort – love, blood, sweat and even tears. Occupational markers tell a great deal about the human body. Tools leave their marks. A quick exercise, particularly for male readers: open the palms of your sisters’, mothers’ and wives’ hands and ask them about the myriad scars – slipping blunt knives, corrosive detergents, holding babies while cooking with the other hand, and other repeated motions that leave shoulders frozen for life. Before romanticizing the food that comes out of the kitchen, where all the magic happens, take in the reality.
It is also a reality that domestic labour, particularly in India, is mediated by class and caste. While women in large joint families sustain life, often sacrificing their job prospects or educational journeys, particularly in rural and semi-urban areas, richer and more socially mobile women in nuclear families have found ways to offset domestic care and labour to the poorer women around them – who work the whole day, only to be served tea in ‘different’ glasses and leftover food that no one else wishes to touch. While men play little to no part in child-rearing, domestic labour and kitchen-work (‘how can we ask him to work/feed the baby/wash dishes when he had such a long day…), women engage in double labour and face the eternally senseless question – ‘can women have it all?’ and never get to ask ‘why should I (alone) have to do it all?’
A telling set of scenes from the critically acclaimed The Great Indian Kitchen, (which deserves a thorough watch by men and women alike) features the father-in-law of the house who is used to having his toothpaste squeezed out for him by his wife and the leftover scraps and waste of his plates wiped away by his daughter-in-law on a daily basis. Upon discovering that his new daughter in law, used to more accommodating life in the Gulf, makes his coconut chutney in the mixer grinder and washes his clothes (including his underwear) in the washing machine, he ‘requests’ her to hand-pound it and hand-wash them. As Sneha in her latest article in the excellent blog The Goya Journal, a food website run by two women, writes on how mechanization – automatic roti-makers, for example – seem to signify a ‘failure’ of women’s ‘authentic’ creation and in addition, point towards the urban, education woman’s laziness and inability to replicate the labour-intensive hard-work of many Indian kitchens:
“The roundness of a woman’s roti is a marker of her domestic competence, while men are applauded for rolling out even a misshapen “map of India.” Consumer appliances like the roti-maker pit the efficient masculinity of the machine against the imperfect femininity of women’s labor. Our shared associations between handmade rotis and maternal love are so mythicised in popular culture, that more often than not, the machine disappoints us emotionally, not functionally.”
Celebrations heighten much of this emotion. We associate celebrations with love, companionship, family, our parents, our natal homes and joy. Ramadan, a month of fasting, heightened prayer and worship, increased charity and community engagement, is one such example. As we enter the month of Ramadan, we must ask ourselves certain questions: do we create the scope for Ramadan to be equally spiritually fulfilling and expansive for all people inside the home?
There is a saying – that everyone has the same 24 hours, so it is what you do with it that counts. However, this is patently untrue. Those who use public transport and have to change two buses do not have the same 24 hours as those who have private cars; those who have to make food for their children do not have the same 24 hours as those who do not; those who have to work three jobs do not have the same time for leisure or sleep as those who do not. Similarly, in Ramadan, a great deal of the responsibilities of ensuring the kitchen runs smoothly – that the samosas are dished out in sufficient quantities; the sehri is served early enough that no one has to rush; that unexpected guests and feasts are managed with no complaints. It is not that food is not a source of family time or bonding – but so is cooking, sharing the responsibilities of washing the dishes, and child-care. It is often said that the domestic work that women do is a form of sadaqah as well as love for their family. If that is true – then should all members of the family, irrespective of gender, not compete to offer more sadaqah and love? Were all members of the family to pitch in in domestic work, particularly at this special time when ibadah (worship) is highly emphasized, would women not have more time for worship?
Family is the bedrock of society. And no one understood this better than the best of men, Prophet Muhammad (saw). Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), was asked, “What did the Prophet (ﷺ) do in his house?” She replied, “He used to keep himself busy serving his family and when it was the time for prayer he would go for it.” (Bukhari) In another report, Hisham said, “I asked ‘A’isha, ‘What did the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, do in his house?’ She replied, ‘He did what one of you would do in his house. He mended sandals and patched garments and sewed.” (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad 540)
Worship is both an individual and community-based activity. While worship is certainly a one-on-one activity that directly links a believer with his or her Creator, we are also encouraged to make it easy for others to worship and not hinder their path. So, one must be considerate of all members in the family when observing a month of excellent worship such as Ramadan. Here are some tips for all members of the family to make it easy:
Yes, we all look forward to the regional and culturally-specific dishes that come out of the recipe book once a year! But make it a habit to keep meals light and easy to cook and keep the exceptional days just that – exceptions. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “Nothing is worse than a person who fills his stomach. It should be enough for the son of Adam to have a few bites to satisfy his hunger. If he wishes more, it should be: One-third for his food, one-third for his liquids and one-third for his breath.” This has no exceptions in Ramadan – and certainly not when we’re so full that we can hardly drag ourselves to the prayer-mat to pray.
Someone just spent two hours cooking something special. So, don’t be the person who spends the next fifteen minutes criticising the food or being unpleasant!
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, would never complain about food. If he liked something, he would eat it. If he disliked it, he would leave it. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3370, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2064
If you wish to offer some critique to improve the dish, offer it in private later or with kindness to avoid humiliation or misery. Do not mock or compare their cooking with others’ unnecessarily.
This is for all time, not just Ramadan! While maintaining the modesty and segregation that was needed, the Prophet (saw) always ensured that his wives did not feel left out of community celebrations. We see the opposite in many houses today, with men or even women frequently heading out with their friends and ignoring their spouse:
Anas reported that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ had a Persian neighbour who could prepare a good soup. One day he cooked soup for the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and came to him to invite him. The Messenger of Allah asked: ‘And is Āishah invited too?’ He replied; ‘No’. So the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: ‘No, (in declining the invitation)’. The neighbour returned once more and invited him again, and the Messenger of Allah ﷺ asked; ‘Is Āishah invited too?’ He replied; ‘No’, and so the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said; ‘No (in declining the invitation)’. He returned a third time to invite him and Allah’s Messenger ﷺ again asked: ‘And is ʿĀʾishah invited too?’ the neighbour replied; ‘Yes’, so the Prophet and ʿĀʾishah made their way until they reached his house. Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3370, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2064
It is well known that children learn by observing, and less so by lecturing. So when you are kind to each other and forgive each other’s mistakes, or get up from the table to serve yourself rather than making women do the work – young children learn. When you wash dishes instead of chucking your plate into the sink while someone else is busy scrubbing – be sure that your child will remember that lesson for a lifetime, and be a comfort for his future spouse and family.
It is the unique situation of South Asia that many masajid are still unused or not designed keeping women in mind. But even in areas with mosques aplenty with areas for women, attendance during jumuah or Ramadan is still scarce because of domestic duties. People think there are no solutions to this and get used to not visiting the mosque or praying taraweeh in congregation. Don’t miss out on the beautiful experience. Cook quick meals, rope in all members of the house to distribute chores, and be on your way. Populate the mosques and you will find that more women will follow your example. It is also incumbent on men that they encourage the women of their household to accompany them at least on occasions. Being proactive can change everything!
Ramadan is undeniably, a time of family. Reconnect with the loved ones you have not met, or deepen the connections with those you might not talk to so much anymore. For couples living away from their families, find some time out of jobs and studies to go back home and ensure that you are not alone, and nor are your parents. The special atmosphere that Ramadan brings with it also can ease existing anxieties, issues or domestic problems, with people being more forgiving to each other. This is a good time to put things behind you and reaffirm your bonds. Loving each other for the sake of the Creator is one of the biggest things you can do: Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Verily, Allah will say on the Day of Resurrection: Where are those who love each other for the sake of My glory? Today, I will shelter them in My shade on a day when there is no shade but Mine.”
chores or help out spontaneously!
Don’t let the work drag you down. Be unashamed in asking for help. It might get you a few raised eyebrows or even judgements, but there is nothing wrong with doing the boring, even exhausting tasks as a family. To make it doable, you can schedule chores depending on the commitments of the family members. Ramadan planners may help in this aspect. If you can’t find a good one, design your own!
At the end of the month, there is, for most believers, a sense of regret that I didn’t ‘do’ much. In the run up to Ramadan, there is an anxiety that I am not ‘prepared’ enough. Yet, in the middle of it all, one forgets everything else for the sake of the Creator and tries their best. This can be a good exercise for the entire family to do. Ask the oldest members of the family about their best and favourite memories of the month. Ask the youngest what their hopes are and try to get them to fulfil it.