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How Do Cultural Norms Influence Vulnerable Women During Ramadan?

It is no secret that disparity in all domains exists between the sexes, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened these divisions. Women have faced higher rates of violence, job loss and mental illness than men because of the pandemic, leaving those who were already in precarious living situations in even more desperate circumstances. Therefore, supporting vulnerable women by ensuring that they are safe in their homes and are able to fully benefit from the religious experience should be a priority this Ramadan. We have seen the necessity of a supportive network over the past year and vulnerable women are particularly in need of resources that will help them in a “lockdown Ramadan”.

Mental illness and domestic abuse in women are highly stigmatized because of harmful cultural norms rooted in sexism. This results in a silence culture, which maintains the existing structures that harm women. Unfortunately, because this cultural sexism is so pervasive, women become accustomed to it and accept it as the norm. Even when they do fight against it, they are met with many obstacles that make it excessively difficult to get help. Women know all too well that these are the circumstances that await them, causing them to lose hope altogether, become apathetic or remain silent on issues concerning them and other women. 

A key driver in women’s oppression in Muslims communities is the misinterpretation of Islam, and so, during Ramadan it is important to focus on helping vulnerable women because it is the month of religious reflection. Muslim communities tend to conflate sexist and religious values by attributing sexist cultural norms to religious text, so that they cannot be challenged. Islam is a large part of many cultures which facilitates this and causes the lines between the two to be blurred. However, if we were to truly reflect on Islam and its message, as we are expected to do during Ramadan, we would see how much culture is to blame for sexism. 

In fact, the cultural norms that are defended as being part of Islam are what have restricted women’s religious practice, particularly in the public sphere. For example, there is a long history in many countries of discouraging, or outright banning, women from going to mosques. Even though, religiously speaking, access to mosques is every Muslim’s right, women are denied this because it clashes with the women’s cultural obligation to stay home.  Indeed, last year, many women were unfazed by the confinement and isolation because they had always been a part of their Ramadan experience. 

Women have always been able to adapt in this way to customs that restrict their mobility by creating safe spaces for themselves and supporting each other. They have founded organizations like Amal and formed close relationships with each other that have been the main support systems of many vulnerable women. While these networks are instrumental to women’s welfare and should be maintained, as outlined in  AMAL’s Toolkit to Strengthen Listeners , their communities should do a better job of helping them out, especially with the additional challenges brought on by the pandemic. Ramadan is a time of religious fulfillment that only comes once a year so all Muslims should have the opportunity to make the most of it. 

To make Ramadan a better experience for vulnerable women, their communities should communicate directly with them to find out what their needs are and what can be done to help them. Their loved ones should take the initiative themselves to assist women in need and to dismantle the cultural norms that work against women because women cannot do so single-handedly. It will take a lot of work from everyone involved because these cultural norms have existed for centuries and involve many diverse groups of people. However, with a sustained effort, we will see less women in vulnerable states which will make them more equipped to deal with crises like the pandemic in the future.

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About the author:

Sara Eldabaa is a Montréal native of Egyptian heritage who has lived her whole life in Montréal. She recently completed her Bachelor’s in psychology from McGill, and she is currently pursuing a degree in journalism at Concordia. She’s interested in the human condition and learning about people’s stories, especially those belonging to people who have been deliberately ignored or silenced.