So what happens when God leaves a woman’s manner of worship up to her own interpretation? Someone else invariably interprets it for her.

Two very interesting articles recently made their way to me.

First, from the HuffPo on the challenges of Ramadan for both pregnant and fasting women.

Last year during Ramadan, a pregnant Kamelia Basir-Rodriguez tried to join other Muslims in fasting from food and drink from dawn to sunset but was told by her doctor to stop when she experienced contractions and blackouts.

This year, as Ramadan starts anew on Wednesday (Aug. 11) the 34-year-old former soldier is breast-feeding her healthy nine-month-old daughter and is again wrestling with whether she should risk dehydration and drying up her milk supply by fasting, or skip it altogether.

The article goes on to say how Basir-Rodriguez is one of many women struggling with an overload of Islamic legal rulings online, advising if pregnant/nursing women should be fasting in the first place, as well as dealing with stigmas from other Muslims who look down upon women who don’t fast or accuse them of “being soft.”

…most scholars agree that Islam exempts pregnant and nursing women from fasting, so long as they make up the fasts later.

The Qur’an says (2:184) that travelers and those who are “ill” are exempt from fasting, but that they must make up the same amount of missed days later. The (male) scholars have lumped any condition where genuine hardship or harm is possible into this “ill” category. So for example, anyone who requires to take medication throughout the day, or anyone with blood sugar problems.  For pregnant/nursing mothers, this “ill” category is further supported by a saying of the Prophet:

“Allah has lifted fasting and half the prayer from the traveler, and the fast from pregnant and nursing women.”
[Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, and Nasa’i]

Fasting is hard. Both the traveler and the pregnant/nursing mother could find genuine hardship in the fast. So the scholars have essentially left it up to the INDIVIDUAL to decide the extent of “genuine hardship.” If I drive from Toronto to Kingston, I’m not going to break my fast. I’m in a nice air conditioned car — it’s not that far or that hard. But if I were flying to Kuwait, I might want to rethink fasting on the days I’m traveling. It’s the same for pregnant/nursing mothers… but with a catch.

The debate on this topic runs through two extremes: a) pregnant/nursing women don’t have to fast, and should accept this as a Mercy from God — to not accept this Mercy is a sin or an affront to God; and b) pregnant/nursing women should at least try. It’s almost like discussing what a pregnant woman should or should not do while pregnant. No coffee. No chocolate. No coke. No junk. No excessive exercise. No fat. No smoking. No cheese. No frankfurters and beer. No herbal teas. No sushi. No peppermint oil back rubs. No breastfeeding. Heaven help you if you fast — that’s a straight-out-of-the-brimstone-sin.

Or you could try to fast. Because if you’re not fasting during Ramadan, you’re just weak.  Weakness or sin — you decide.

Honestly, who wants to hear that?  What’s more likely is that you’ll hear from non Muslims and Muslims alike, “oh you’re fasting and pregnant/nursing?  Isn’t that dangerous?  Do you want me to get you some water?” I’ve already heard encouragements to break my fast from a couple of people.  No thank you — I’m a free agent, as is my daughter. But even if she were still a fetus, I’d still be free to decide if I were healthy enough to fast.

It’s an annoying situation to be in, not only because of these extreme pressures, and unspoken external criticism of women’s bodies, but also because of missing out on the strong sense of community that Ramadan helps to create:

“There’s such anticipation to the fast. It’s being part of a community,” said Pamela Taylor, a progressive Muslim activist in Cincinnati who skipped the fast while pregnant and nursing her three children, now 20, 16, and 11.

“If you’re not fasting, you feel left out.”

We WANT to fast. We really do. Lots of us try and struggle with drops in our milk supply, or higher than normal chances of dehydration, and a constant fear of harming our unborn babies. We don’t really want to wait to make up these fasts later on. Sometimes we receive support to fast. Other times we are pressured to break it. No one wants to feel that kind of stress or pressure during a sacred rite. Certainly NOT while pregnant or nursing!

We do know our bodies best, so why not be afforded the chance to have a coffee, or to fast from it?  Because women don’t always have a choice.  Some have to fast behind their family’s backs. Some are forced to eat and drink when their very spiritual nature urges them to fast to please Allah.

And it’s not just a simple matter of having enough calories during the day — as we can eat enough during dinner and pre-fast meals. What concerns many people and physicians is the lack of water throughout the day.

Some medical studies have found that fasting has minimal impact on fetal development and milk supply, but others have linked fasting to reduced fetal breathing, induced labor and dehydration. Doctors say nursing mothers should consider the baby’s age, health, and how much of the baby’s diet is reliant on breast milk.

But if women are confident enough to fast while a few weeks pregnant or when nursing their 3 month old, they should be allowed to. And if women decide not to fast, then they should be able to do so guilt free.  Because really, God did offer us a “break” if we choose to take it.

It’s not just pregnant/nursing women who have a fasting dilemma.  During menstruation and the postpartum period, women do not have to fast, as one’s monthy is also conveniently lumped into the “ill” category.  I know a couple of women who’s periods drive them into bed with a a hot water bottle and a handful of Advil.  I’ve been very lucky to never experience that.  So, outside of the cramping from contractions, no, I don’t know how menstruation is a hardship.  I just know that it is for some, and that must seriously suck.

But like pregnant/nursing women, they have to make up missed fasts.

I currently have 36 days to make up.  Six days from Ramadan 2008 when I had my period, and 30 from Ramadan 2009 when I was in postpartum. And if I end up missing any days in Ramadan 2010, I’ll have to add it to the toll.  That, and if we get pregnant any time over the next year, not only will I have to carry over the 36+, but I’ll have to add another 30 from 2011 (assuming I don’t fast while pregnant AND nursing, for argument’s sake).

The problem I have, is that my 6 days from 2008 should have been made up before the next Ramadan. Somewhere along the line, the (male) scholars decided that menstruating women needed to make up the fasts before the next year.

Well sucks to be me. My menstruation fasts got lumped into my pregnancy. I had intended to do them, but got pregnant right after Ramadan 2008. So now what do I do?

Amina Wadud talk’s about this issue in the second half of Women’s Double Duty,where she argues that menstruation is not a sickness, and it’s only because male scholars have equated menstrual blood with ritual impurity, that women are “punished” (my word) by being given a time limit on their make-up fasts.

Sometimes this equation, blood equals ritual purification gets twisted into the idea that menstruation is sick or dirty. We really have to examine some of the underlying results of this twisted thinking. That which is the only biological symbol of women’s fertility that is the means where by all human life flows, has been tainted and made into a thing unpure. This message is internalized and the simple logical consistency between blood and purification is askew. None of those who were wounded in battles at the time of the Prophet were condemned to this blood equals impure association, but women get tainted for decades of their lives.

Decades. Or at least in my current case, a couple of years.

Wadud goes on to argue that because menstruation is a NORMAL part of biology, and is not mentioned in the Qur’an as an illness (2:222 calls it a “vulnerable condition” according to the Muhammad Asad translation, others have translated it as “a pain”; “a hurt”), that putting a time limit on remaking these days (guaranteed a week every Ramadan for approximately 40 years) is unreasonable:

Why is the double duty of women’s schedule not taken into consideration for reprieve? If we miss a day because of these biological aspects, like menstruation, I’m not sure this hard and fast ruling takes any consideration of just how reasonable or unreasonable it would be to remake those days.

I think the exclusively male jurists were jealous women were given this vacation and so took it back by requiring us to fast on other days, as if we had done this to ourselves on purpose to miss a few days fast each month

Actually, I think women have a triple duty.

If you’re exempt from the fast due to menstruation/pregnancy/nursing, invariably you’re home cooking and feeding the fasters (a great thing!!), taking care of the kids while the men read the Qur’an (ok…), putting the kids to bed while the men go to the mosque for night prayers (gee…), cleaning the kitchen and preparing the pre-dawn meal while everyone sleeps (…sigh…) — leaving very few precious minutes for a woman barred from the fast to participate in Ramadan by other spiritual means like reading the Qur’an (another debate altogether), praying, making supplications, chanting remembrances, unless she has a great support system at home or a husband who understands.

Scratch that. This is going to happen if you’re a woman. Period