A doctor in scrubs and hijab stands outside an emergency room
Dr. Dalia Nassman, a resident of emergency medicine at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

'You Just Can't Say No': Muslim Essential Workers on Working Through Ramadan

Muslim essential workers across industries prepare for the challenges of working through the coronavirus pandemic while fasting for Ramadan.
April 21, 2020, 2:18pm

“For the last 20 years of my career, I've worked almost every Christmas Day, and almost every Easter Sunday,” said ICU doctor Hasan Shanawani, who specializes in lung disease and critical care. “And the reason why I do that is because I know that those days are very important to other people.”

Likewise, Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims, is very important to Shanawani. Normally, as a part-time ICU doctor, Shanawani works six to eight 12-hour shifts per month. During Ramadan, he usually takes the month off from working in the ICU. But this year is different.

In addition to his day job at Blue Cross Blue Shield overseeing the quality of care given to Medicare patients and his tele ICU work, in which he advises ICU nurses, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, and more via video chat, Shanawani has decided to work some in-person ICU shifts during Ramadan this year. Like many Muslim healthcare workers and other essential workers do every year, he will do so while fasting from sunrise until sunset. But this Ramadan, Shanawani and other Muslim essential workers will have the added challenge of fasting while working through a crisis.

In the U.S., Muslims are over-represented in multiple fields that are considered essential during the COVID-19 crisis. In Michigan, where Shanawani lives, for example, under 3 percent of the overall population is Muslim, but Muslims account for 15 percent of the state’s doctors. In New York City, Muslims make up 9 percent of the city’s population, but 12 percent of the city’s pharmacists and 39 percent of its licensed taxi drivers.

All Muslims, essential workers or not, will have to adjust to a Ramadan like never before this year. The coronavirus pandemic has shut down mosques, meaning that Taraweeh, the long group prayers performed nightly during Ramadan, are canceled. It has made obtaining groceries for iftar, the meal during which Muslims observing Ramadan break their fast, far more difficult—especially for families who rely on mosques for these meals. The usual get-togethers with extended family and community that can be a source of support for those fasting long days won’t happen in person. For many, the COVID crisis comes with a financial burden that makes focusing on one’s own spirituality all the more challenging.

But for Muslim essential workers, the challenges of Ramadan under the COVID-19 crisis go further. They will worry daily about exposing their loved ones to the virus when they return home from work, and about keeping themselves physically and mentally strong enough to fulfill the duties of their job while foregoing food and water. Despite these challenges, Shanawani has decided to work through Ramadan, meaning he will have to work 12 hour shifts while fasting and self-isolate from his family at home.

While there are exemptions for fasting in Islam—like if one is sick, pregnant, traveling, or if fasting will cause great harm—many Muslims will only opt out of fasting as a last resort.

For Shanawani, the choice to continue working in the ICU through Ramadan was both moral and religious. Shanawani has experienced an increased need for his work since the COVID-19 crisis began. “At some point in time, you just, you can't say no,” he said. “There are people out there drowning, [and] I know how to take care of them. How do I not step up and do that work?”

Shanawani also credited the below hadith for his decision:

Allah will say on the Day of Judgment, ‘Son of Adam, I was sick but you did not visit Me.’

My Lord, How could I visit You when You are the Lord of the Worlds?’

Did you not know that one of My servants was sick and you didn’t visit him? If you had visited him you would have found Me there.’

For other Muslim essential workers, like 29-year-old Ismahan Ali, working through Ramadan won’t be a choice.

Ali works full time as a janitor at an Amazon office at night while going to nursing school full time during the day. Unlike Shanawani, Ali is not able to self-isolate, as her grandparents' only caretaker. Enrolled in school and caring for her family both in Seattle and Somalia, taking Ramadan off wasn’t an option. “We don't have no choice,” she said.

Her shifts at Amazon begin at 6 pm and end at 2 am. During Ramadan, after working through the night, she’ll have to be up again before 4:30 a.m. to prepare and eat suhur, the early morning meal before one begins their daily fast.

“I don't know what to do,” she said about Ramadan, which begins in just a few days. “It scares me, wallahi [I swear to God].”

Ali’s job, too, has changed as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. Her cleaning duties have intensified as Amazon continues to operate during the crisis, hiring more workers to keep up with demand. Ali says that ABM, the cleaning and maintenance company she works for, has asked her and her colleagues to do extra work without extra pay to sanitize Amazon’s Seattle office.

An Amazon spokesperson confirmed that janitors have been asked to sanitize surfaces more frequently. ABM did not respond to a request for comment.

Ali is worried about completing the new physical demands of her job while fasting, but she’s particularly concerned about having to use the cleaning products that the company has forced her and her coworkers to use during the pandemic. On a normal day, one of the products in particular makes her feel lightheaded. “When you use the chemical, sometimes you feel like you need to sit and drink water,” she said. The Amazon spokesperson said that the cleaning products being used are not new but have always been a part of the company’s enhanced cleaning protocols. Though Ali was among the first workers to speak out recently and successfully demand protections like masks and training on how to use the mandated products for these protocols, she still worries about how working with them will affect her while fasting.

Ali, who has been cleaning at the Amazon office through ABM since 2016, said she and other Muslim employees at the company have asked for at least a week of PTO during Ramadan, but their requests were denied.

Shyda Rashid is the domestic violence program manager at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an NYC-based non-profit that supports South Asian women experiencing gender-based violence. Like Shanawani and Ali, the pandemic has intensified her work.

“Isolation is a powerful tool for abusers,” she said. As rates of domestic violence increase under the pandemic, more and more survivors are reaching out to organizations like Sakhi for South Asian Women. Currently, Rashid is able to work with survivors from her home, answering the organization’s helpline and providing emotional and logistical support digitally. On any given day, she’s trying to locate a safe shelter for a mother and her children (a scarcity as social distancing is difficult inside shelters), figuring out how to secretly deliver birth control to another, and running a support group in Bengali. Now, for Ramadan, Rashid is also helping ensure that food-insecure families will have meals through the organization’s new Food Justice Program.

As Rashid works remotely, her husband is currently stuck in Bangladesh, where the government has restricted flights. Though she is alone and able to self-isolate, the stress of providing critical, often life-saving support to survivors while under the COVID-19 crisis is already great.

“I cannot separate my work and my personal life,” she said. “I am frustrated and nervous to see the shelter conditions. I am emotionally overwhelmed, but I am performing my duties.” With Ramadan, the upcoming weeks will only be more challenging.

As Muslim essential workers across industries and incomes face unique challenges this Ramadan that challenge them physically and mentally, they’ll have to find their own ways to cope.

Ali is relying on prayer to see her through her month. “We just make du’a to relieve the hard times,” she said referring to the Muslim prayer of supplication or request.

For Shanawani, knowing that his work is saving lives helps as much as it can. “It is very fulfilling,” he said, “but it's also very draining.”