Culture & Society

My Mother’s Ramadan

Indian festivals are occasions to celebrate, but for the women, there is very little joy as most of them end up toiling in their kitchens for hours

Representative Image/Getty Images
A Kashmiri Muslim woman prays while waiting for congregational Eid-al-Fitr prayers at Hazratbal on Eid-al-fitr, a festival celebrated by Muslims worldwide on April 10, 2024 in Srinagar, Indian administered Kashmir, India. Photo: Representative Image/Getty Images

Scene 1

My mother has dozed off sitting in the chair. The cuckoo’s coo and the leaves shuffling slowly in the spring are suddenly interrupted by the loud lowing of my mother’s favourite cow. 

The calm of the noon gets temporarily disrupted by the cow’s call. My father shouts at my mother as it disrupts his noon nap as well. My mother runs outside, pats the cow and gives her fodder. My father turns the side and proceeds with his nap. 

Ammi goes back inside and checks the time. It's 3 pm! She rushes to the kitchen. She has to prepare the iftar—fruits, ghugni, sherbet, sweets etc. Then, she has to prepare the dinner, too. And then the sehri (the late-night food before the sunrise). She turns on the stove and begins to cook. It's a long process. The sweat on her cheek runs down and touches her dry, cracked lips. She wipes the sweat beads with her aanchal. She turns the gas stove on and off when it’s time to perform the namaz

My sexagenarian mother is gasping. But she has to rush. She has to finish by 5.45. Iftaar time is 5.58. She is always terrified. She has to make everything perfect every Ramadan. One miss and she will be bowled out by my father's perfect delivery of curt comments or shouting. He is fasting. So is my mother. But my mother is a woman, and my father believes it's her duty to make everything perfect.

Scene 2

My aunt, who is in a paid job, returns home from her office. This is the month of Ramadan. She returns one hour early. Setting the foot at home, she rushes to the kitchen to let the sugar melt in for sherbet. Every family in the locality has to serve iftar for the whole area. Today is her turn. Her neighbour served five dishes, including a new one that she cooked following a YouTube channel. My aunt has to do more or else she will become a subject of gossip.

Sitting on the sofa, my uncle is giving her orders. She is like a whirlwind, flying from one corner of the kitchen to the other. After packing and distributing the iftar, she now has to arrange everything neatly on the dining table. Her husband wants everything in his hands. She is running around, with no time to breathe. She has to ace the many roles she is expected to play—a good wife, a good neighbour, and an ideal Muslim woman. 

While my aunt is striving to do her best, my uncle sits and counts tasbeeh—the holy beads. Society has no expectations from him as he is a man. He is entitled. His only desire is to reach jannat. My aunt deserves to go to Jannat, too. But who will answer this question? Who will ask? Even asking the question could be termed as blasphemous.

The Common Scene

My mother and my aunt and thousands of women drudging in the kitchen are into the thankless jobs Indian women have to do every day. The embedded patriarchy is so deep-rooted that the women don't even realise how they are being exploited. And Indian festivals are the main arenas of women's labour exploitation. As per a media report, 92 per cent of Indian women participate in unpaid domestic labour work, while only 27 per cent of men participate in household chores. While Indian women spend 7.2 hours in unpaid domestic work, men spend 2.8 hours. 

This ‘time poverty’ deprives Indian women of leisure, sleep, and work. They lag behind their male counterparts. Women who are in paid jobs are doubly exploited. They have to work in their workplaces as well as run the household. It seriously challenges the myth that a salaried woman is an empowered woman. They have to make odd compromises “to be allowed to continue their work.” Without providing a conducive environment like a crèche for children, the implementation of Vishakha commission recommendations, and flexible working hours, paid jobs often come as double exploitation. It raises the serious question of whether things have changed at all for women.

In reality, nothing much has changed; rather, “evolved” is the right word here. In the capitalist, patriarchal economy, women are now allowed to work. Being a part of the workforce and earning members of the formal economy doesn't necessarily translate into their own financial independence and social agency. It’s not an urban myth but a reality in several homes that women don't have any choice but to hand over their salaries to their fathers/husbands and they become passive buyers and investors, labouring away to consumerist cannibalism masquerading as empowerment.

The National Library of Medicine of India publishes a report which states that in India 50 per cent of women of reproductive age have anaemia, while 23 per cent men of this age group have iron deficiency. The report further points out that, “due to a double burden of work outside the home and completing the majority of unpaid work in the home, women lack time to visit health centres to get tested for anaemia and to obtain iron supplements. Women are expected to prioritise the health of their family over their own, thus affecting their access to health care.”

And Indian festivals, irrespective of caste and religion, are the festivals of gluttony. Indian women have to satisfy the “husband gods”, the “father-gods” or the “brother gods”, apart from the other Gods or Allah to attain Swarga or Jannat.

So, my mom and my mother have no escape while my abba and my uncle yawn away on their beds with the holy beads in their hands. My mother, my aunt and millions of women are not even aware that they are victims of patriarchy and the exploitative nature of family where the men are still the bosses. When will things change? Only Gods know? Do they? I have my doubts because in Indian families, men—the agents of patriarchy—are the Gods!

(Moumita Alam is a poet from West Bengal)