Ramadan culture takes a fashionable turn, straining budgets

Why We Wrote This

In the affluent West, consumerism is a sometimes unwelcome addition to the observance of even the holiest of days. Across the Arab world, the month of Ramadan, which emphasizes sacrifice, increasingly is not immune.

Kamran Jebreili/AP/File
Women pass by a display showcasing the DKNY Ramadan collection at a mall in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in July 2014. Aiming at wealthy Arab shoppers, DKNY launched the collection just before the holy month began, a practice that has spread and intensified.

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Shopping at midnight? Ramadan consumerism is hitting new heights across the Arab world. Clothing fashion lines, makeup, and themed plates, cups, and pillows all cater to those hosting or invited for the fast-breaking iftar meal during the holy month. Households in the Gulf states, Jordan, and Lebanon spend time preparing the perfect home and the perfect look.

Economists and sociologists trace the emergence of Ramadan consumerism to the explosive growth of satellite TV networks in the region. With more families gathering around the television after iftar to watch soap operas, documentaries, or sports on Gulf-based networks, Ramadan has become the advertising Super Bowl of the Arab world. Companies spend up to 65% of their yearly ad budget during the holy month.

Once, says Hussein Khozahe, a Jordanian sociologist and columnist, “women of the house would simply choose how to best observe the month with the resources they had. Now, with the continuous promotions and advertisements everywhere they turn, families are being directed to live and consume at a level that is not only against the spirit of the holiday and Islam, but is often out of their reach.”

Amina was in a dilemma: She had less than 24 hours and nothing to wear.

Within minutes of receiving the invitation, the 30-year-old Jordanian banker booked a stylist for the afternoon before the big event and rushed to a mall at midnight to browse the aisles for the perfect outfit: something glamorous, but not flashy; graceful, but not drab.

The occasion? Ramadan.

“We have to look our best when we are invited during Ramadan,” Amina says. “It is a time when everyone is going to see us and remember how we looked for the rest of the year.”

For many Arab families, advertising, peer pressure, a growing middle class, and Gulf-led consumerism are steering the holy month – traditionally a period of fasting, spiritual reflection, and family affairs – toward a social season of high expectations on par with Christmas in the United States.

Yet social pressures are not only diluting Ramadan’s central message of sacrifice and solidarity with the poor; they are also pushing some Arab families to live beyond their means for the holy month.

In search of the perfect look

Slowly creeping into the holiday the past two decades, Ramadan consumerism is hitting new heights in the region this year. Ramadan fashion lines, makeup, and themed plates, cups, and pillows all cater to the tens of millions of Muslims who either host or are invited for the fast-breaking iftar meal during the holy month.

Western brands such as H&M offer modest designer clothes for iftar meals and even for suhoor, the pre-dawn meal that is often consumed in the privacy of the home in most Arab states.

Households in the Gulf states, Jordan, and Lebanon spend time preparing the perfect-looking home and the perfect look.

“Women want to look their very best during Ramadan to impress their relatives, their in-laws, and neighbors,” says Rommouz Sadeq, whose Jordanian Al Mrayti on-order stylist service sees a spike in business during the holy month. “Socially, it is becoming a more important time than wedding season.”

It is a far cry from Ramadan preparations just 20 years ago, when many Arab families would simply stock up on dates, dried fruits, and special juices and prepare seasonal desserts such as pancake-like qatayef. Decorations were limited to colorful streamers and brass lanterns.

“Before, we would have our meals, pray, and eat qatayef,” says Um Samer, a shopper at an Amman market. “Now our kids want it all: Ramadan juices, Ramadan lights, fancy appetizers.”

Super Bowl of Arab advertising

Economists and sociologists trace the emergence of a Ramadan culture of consumerism with satellite TV networks, which took root in the region in the 1990s and exploded in the early 2000s.

With more Arab families gathering around the television after iftar to watch soap operas, documentaries, or sports on Gulf-based satellite networks, local and international companies began to place ads for food and cleaning products.

Now Ramadan is the advertising Super Bowl of the Arab world, with Middle East companies spending up to 65% of their yearly ad budget during the holy month, as brands compete to win viewers’ attention throughout the month with eye-catching, innovative, and meme-able commercials.

“Before, there were not hundreds of satellite channels or social media to tell families what they should buy and how they should celebrate,” says Hussein Khozahe, a Jordanian sociologist and columnist. “Women of the house would simply choose how to best observe the month with the resources they had.”

“Now, with the continuous promotions and advertisements everywhere they turn, families are being directed to live and consume at a level that is not only against the spirit of the holiday and Islam, but is often out of their reach.”

The advent of smartphones has taken Ramadan advertising to a whole new level.

According to Facebook, people across the Middle East and North Africa spend 5% more time on Facebook during the holy month – an additional 58 million user hours. In Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, Google reports a 150% increase in views on YouTube of soap operas, 30% more for travel videos, and 27% more in religious content. All the while, viewers are bombarded with themed ads.

Aiding the materialism is the rise in ready-made and frozen foods and kitchen appliances affordable to working and middle-class families – all reducing the preparation of multicourse iftar meals from an entire day to under two hours.

This is coupled with the emergence of restaurants in the Gulf, Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank that deliver affordable Arabic cuisine mimicking home cooking, perfect for middle-class families with last-minute iftar hosting.

With the reduced or eliminated cooking time, energies are instead spent on more extravagant dishes, decor, and entertainment, economists say.

“Meals were all homemade and time-consuming, with lots of preparation,” says Jawad Anani, a Jordanian economic analyst and former minister of state for economic affairs. “With affordable home-cooked food now delivered to your door, consumer behaviors have changed, and the basket of goods has grown larger.”

Religious principles

This consumerism runs against not only the spirit of Ramadan – which encourages sacrifice, patience, and restraint to feel with the poor – but even the core tenets of Islam itself.

Multiple passages in the Quran speak out against extravagance. Quranic Chapter 7:31: “eat and drink, but do not be excessive, for God does not love those who waste.”

It is an instance, sociologists and experts say, where cultural norms trump religion.

“This speaks not only to the power of these pressures but the lack of true Islamic education awareness among people in the Arab world today,” says Mr. Khozahe, the sociologist.

Instagram factor

Driving the pressure to impress is social media, with people and influencers sharing elaborate iftar and suhoor spreads on Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms. Instagram has even introduced a “Lantern” filter of stylized crescent moons to encourage users to photograph Ramadan celebrations.

Families, particularly mothers and wives, are not only “keeping up” with the neighbors, but also competing with complete strangers across the Arab world.

In a recent essay for BBC Arabic, Emirati writer and magazine chief editor Manar Al Hinai describes attending an extravagant private suhoor gathering featuring live music, restaurant catering, and even an entire ice cream truck. She goes on to speculate that the hostess borrowed money for the display.

“Why do some people borrow money for appearances?” Ms. Al Hinai writes in the essay.

“Maybe the reason is the effect of social network platforms that allow many to enter the homes of different segments of society and look at their Ramadan events and preparations, which encourages comparisons and competition to try to keep pace so as not to appear less than their peers.”

Some families in the Gulf and Jordan go into debt during Ramadan to keep up with the 29 days of hosting and visits, which can cost up to twice their monthly income.

“We host my family, my wife’s family, and the neighbors. That is iftars, sweets, and coffee for over 100 people,” says Abu Saed, a civil engineer and father of three, adding that he has borrowed $700 the past two Ramadans from banks and relatives to make it through the month.

“Being invited doesn’t lessen the burden. We have to bring a gift each time!”

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