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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Ramadan: a time of year to reflect, recalibrate and reconnect

Global studies of behaviours and attitudes during Ramadan provide fascinating insights, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Shoppers check out items at a Ramadan Market in Dubai. Leslie Pableo / The National
Shoppers check out items at a Ramadan Market in Dubai. Leslie Pableo / The National

Global fashion retailer H&M has just launched a modest fashion line. It comes on the back of online retailer Net a Porter announcing in the Middle East what is being hailed as its biggest ever Ramadan fashion collection. Yes, Ramadan fashion is a thing.

Ramadan is a season of being "peak Muslim", so there’s nothing surprising about people wanting to revamp their look for the holy month. And when people change their behaviours, brands tend to follow. Shopping habits change too. A study in Indonesia by aCommerce found that shopping online not only rises, but its timings also change. Indonesians “eat, pray, shop, shop, shop”. Online activity in Indonesia during Ramadan peaks at around 4am alongside a general rise in traffic. Online clothing sales spike at 400 per cent.

The night-time rise in online activity is more or less ubiquitous. According to Effective Measure, Saudi Arabia’s peak usage shifts from its usual 1pm-2pm spike to 4am-5am during Ramadan. In the UAE during the holy month, online traffic between 2am and 5am is double other months, and peaks at 8pm, suggesting a sneaky browse after iftar.

If folks are shop, shop, shopping, then aren’t accusations that Ramadan is being commercialised in fact true? Is Ramadan at risk of going the way of Christmas in the West, ask people in alarm? Certainly, there is always a risk, but Muslims themselves are the best defence against it.

In fact, Muslims demonstrate this resilience in spades. In a recent study by Ogilvy Noor, Muslims in the UK said that their primary concern is spirituality, with 90 per cent preparing themselves spiritually before Ramadan.

What makes these marketing studies so interesting is their ability to provide a snapshot of behaviours and attitudes towards Ramadan. We learn how they vary by gender and by age group, we get data about how emotions rise and fall in the run up to the month, we discover what concerns and worries people.

In these studies lie fascinating insights for communities and leaders, especially scholars and imams, about the divergence between our idealistic vision of Ramadan and the reality of its experiences.

For example, one very interesting portrait that emerged from the work done by Ogilvy Noor concerned the different activities of women and men. Women tend to worry about cooking, listening to Islamic content and donating money. Men are worried about their physique, but they are also out doing charitable work, at the mosque and eating in restaurants.

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Shelina Janmohamed is a weekly columnist for The National:

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For younger Muslims in particular – the ones I describe in my book Generation M as those who believe faith and modern life go hand in hand – the halal lifestyle encompasses products and services that are tailored towards helping them live the Muslim lifestyle they aspire to. Some might call it commercialisation, they see it as brands finally delivering the goods that they want to consume within the parameters of their faith.

If there’s anything that Christmas and Ramadan can be said to share, it is the manner in which the excitement and energy they provoke often paper over some of the challenges.

Two obvious examples come to mind. The first is the workload that increases on the shoulders of women, especially mothers. There is the challenge of managing small children while fasting as well as the pressure of delivering enormous feasts every evening and morning. In providing useful products and helping women to prepare, brands can play a supportive role.

But ultimately the community needs to work hard to ensure Ramadan labour is shared more evenly with husbands and such unrealistic expectations on women are reduced. If spirituality is really the focus, then women should be given the time and freedom to experience it too.

The second is mental health, both for those in stressful circumstances like mothers of small children – who may already be suffering even before the physical strain of fasting and the additional food preparation tasks are added – and for those who may find themselves sad and alone at a time of great festivity and community.

There is plenty of anxiety about Ramadan losing its meaning, particularly in the West, and departing from its true focus on spirituality. But what we require is an honest conversation about how we can ensure that meaning and spirituality are not just an ideal, but a tangible reality for all.

To all those observing the sacred month, I wish you Ramadan Mubarak.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World