Dear Hajjah,

Please provide some guidelines on the requirements of women fasting during Ramadan.

- S.K.

Dear S.K.:

Thank you for your thoughtful inquiry. This lengthy reply includes brief points of Islamic Law that apply to women.

It should be understood that Islam is intended to bring ease to all aspects of our daily life. Allah grants special mercy for women, and requirements of worship are less stringent for them than for men. Women and men are exempt from fasting during extended travel away from home (beyond fifty miles and a duration of more than one day), and during illness which is too severe to continue the fast, and if they are very old and/or weak. Women, however, are further exempt from the fast if they are pregnant or are breast-feeding, unless fasting does not interrupt feeding schedules nor creates a serious imbalance in the natural supply and quality of milk so as to disturb the baby. This exemption is again to the favor of women, as Allah intends the mother should not have to undergo undue hardship.

A nursing mother cannot fast without the permission of the infant’s father, as she may be emotionally moved  to observe fast when doing so may impare her health, or that of the baby. As the protector of the mother and child, the father is expected to be objective when taking his decision, not overly strict and not overly soft.

Women are also exempt from the fast of Ramadan during their monthly periods, a time when they are also given leave from performing the five daily prayers. While some Muslims believe this state renders a woman unfit to pray or fast because she is “unclean”, the reality of the matter is that Allah subhana wa ta’ala in His Infinite Mercy has relieved women of their religious responsibilities during this period so that they may relax. During Ramadan and all other times throughout the year, part of the woman’s biological monthly cleansing process is that she not obstruct or collect the flow of unclean matter which issues from her womb, such as with the use of tampons, which is categorically haram (forbidden) and can cause severe toxic reactions in the body. A woman’s duty to fast in Ramadan resumes at the time when prayer becomes binding.

Women and men are each responsible for days of obligatory fasting which were not fulfilled. However, in the case of women who are aged and extremely weak or who suffer from long-term illness, Allah has allowed that their children may fast on their behalf to make up unfulfilled days of obligatory fasting. Under these circumstances the adult children make their intention to fast on behalf of the exempted parent, and each day of fasting must be observed independent from any other fasts.

For each day of obligatory fasting (in Ramadan) missed due to travel or temporary illness, both men and women must fast one day sometime  before the next Ramadan. However, a pregnant woman or nursing mother who did not fast the entire month of Ramadan has been given the option to make up one day of fasting for one day missed (which is best), or she may feed two poor individuals for thirty days (sixty meals), or give sadaqah to the equivalent of sixty meals. Again, this option is intended to help women who are unable to make up an entire month of fasting, either due to illness, weakness, or because they are again pregnant or still nursing their baby, but who nevertheless need to make up missed days of fasting, which are a debt we are all held accountable for.

Women and men are not exempt from fasting simply because they work outside the home or because their jobs require long or irregular hours, or a long commute. As these days many Muslim women are working outside the home, some are finding it much easier to request flexible work hours during Ramadan, reporting to work earlier and leaving earlier in the day, to alleviate the burden of fasting and to allow them be at home with their families in time to prepare for and break fast at sunset.