Ramadan: Time to fast, pray and spend


Sabirah Abdur-Rahim does a hijab demonstration for Salma Jordan, left, Laela Mohseni and Hina Hussain on Aug. 20 in Vienna. During Ramadan, spending increases among some Muslims as they host dinners, give gifts and buy new outfits for the closing celebration. (Amanda Voisard/THE WASHINGTON POST)

For many Muslims, the Eid celebration that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan is a time to deck out. And for Atiya Hassan, that isn’t done haphazardly.

“This year my theme is ‘Serengeti Fairy,’ ” the 28-year-old from Baltimore said on a recent Saturday at the Modern Mary boutique in Herndon. The fashion-loving Hassan was browsing for “an ethereal-looking scarf” to go with a skirt and shirt of magenta, green and gold fabric from Nigeria she’d already bought.

During Ramadan, Muslims not only fast and reflect — they spend, lots. Purchasing in some Muslim-majority countries doubles during the month, with people hosting lavish community meals night after night, giving gifts and donating to charities. Women in particular buy new outfits for the three-day Eid, which many Muslims mark as beginning at sunset Monday, when Ramadan comes to a close.

Opened three years ago, Modern Mary and its high-end modest women’s clothing are part of an increasingly sophisticated effort to market and sell to Muslim Americans, a relatively new faith community thought to represent about $200 billion a year in spending.

Muslims are the country’s most ethnically and racially diverse faith group, and the boutique that afternoon was a microcosm of Muslim American womanhood and varying traditions. There was the stay-at-home mom who hosts dinner parties every night of the month. The unmarried epidemiologist who works late and breaks fast at her folks’. The woman with flowing uncovered hair offering Ramadan reiki specials. And the woman covered in black, except for a slit for her eyes.

The Washington area is an interesting Ramadan market, experts said, because its Muslim population is relatively large and made up of many young, transient globe-trotter and embassy types who are looking to gather and network. They seem to go out more and not just break the fast each night with immediate family, at a meal called an iftar.

“The scene here is about the art of the iftar,” said Asma Uddin, a lawyer transplant from Florida and editor in chief of altmuslimah.com, a blog about Islam and gender.

Hassan was at the boutique with two childhood friends from Baltimore, who said they drive to see the embroidered, beaded Modern Mary designs because it’s unusual to find unique, modest fashions.

The boutique is part of an office suite of health and beauty services aimed at Muslim women. It sits in a nondescript office building that is largely empty during the weekend, with no foot traffic. It includes offices offering everything from clothing and hairdressing to reiki and jewelry, and a woman teaching chic new ways to wrap a head covering.

Almost all of the women who came into the suite covered their hair. Some wore floor-length skirts. Others, such as Modern Mary designer Seema Sahin, wore jeans; Sahin added a long turquoise-and-brown top and super-high-heeled mules.

Ramadan is a busy time for people like Sahin and Mischelle Moody, a Silver Spring aesthetician who helps women deal with the side effects of fasting. The body can release toxins, she said, and when Ramadan comes during the summer — as it did this year — that means a lot of sweating during a holiday when you aren’t supposed to drink water. Clogged pores, breakouts and dry skin are typical side effects, she said.

But women in the boutique said the challenges are minor compared with the spiritual uplift they feel during a month when, Islam teaches, good deeds are amplified in God’s eyes. People want to host parties more, pray more, feed the hungry more. While many Muslim women don’t fast when they are menstruating, others said they take birth control pills that prevent their monthly periods so they can continue fasting.

Much of the celebrating during Ramadan is kept for Eid al-Fitr. Depending on their culture, some women put henna designs on their bodies or have mother-daughter pampering days. In Baltimore, there is a big community fair that includes events that teach girls how to sew, cook, do manicures and properly set a table.

Munira Sabir, a hairdresser who moved to Sterling from Saudi Arabia, said the economic downturn has taken its toll on the time of year when she is typically very busy.

“This should be the time of year when people spend money, but every year is worse and worse,” Sabir said.

A classic barometer of the Ramadan economy is charity, and Muslim aid organizations sometimes get 50 percent or more than the usual amount of donations during the month. Islamic Relief, the country’s largest Muslim charity, said it has received $13 million in commitments toward its annual Ramadan goal of $20 million. Giving has been up despite the economic downturn in the past couple of years, an Islamic Relief official said, mostly because of targeted campaigns around the East African famine this year and the floods last summer in Pakistan.

Among those selling at the boutique for Eid was Nadia Janjua, an architect and artist from Cumberland, selling Islam-inspired cards and wood-and-resin jewelry. Muslims, she said, can have a complicated relationship with art and music, and some believe much of it is forbidden. That has been changing in recent years, and she said she’s been spending late nights during Ramadan making art.

Laela Mohseni, a pediatrician from Rockville, was browsing the Modern Mary racks for a tunic to celebrate Eid. “It’s a whole month of fasting, and you got through it!”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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