By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service
(RNS) 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.
After questioning imams and looking for information online, she concluded most scholars agree that Islam exempts pregnant and nursing women from fasting, so long as they make up the fasts later. Still, she knew the potential of being criticized as soft by other Muslim women.
"There are some sisters who will look down upon other sisters who don't fast," said Basir-Rodriguez, of Springfield, Va. "Finally, my husband cleared it up. He said, 'God gives you the exemption as a mercy, it would be rude not to accept.'"
Basir-Rodriguez is not alone in her struggle to reconcile piety and parenting. Muslim parenting blogs like "Hijabi Apprentice" and "Journey of a Baby" are abuzz with Muslim women chatting about fasting while pregnant or nursing, including the "Muslim Families" group at Babycenter.com, to which Basir-Rodriguez belongs.
A significant number of women choose to fast instead of taking the exemption. Some say they prefer to fast as part of a community rather than making up the fasts later, alone.
"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."
Similar debates arise in Judaism, which has four major fast days. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are exempt from fasting on three of the four fasts, except Yom Kippur, when only women in childbirth and experiencing post-childbirth bleeding are exempt.
It's a serious health issue for both mothers and their babies. As Ramadan creeps back into summer on Islam's lunar calendar, the hotter and longer days increase the risks.
Current medical research holds that breast milk provides essential antibodies for a newborn's immune system, as well as essential vitamins and nutrients. Most mothers are advised to nurse their newborns for at least six months; the Quran says women should nurse for two years.
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.
Laila Al-Marayati, a family physician and spokeswoman for the Muslim Woman's League in Los Angeles, said pregnant and nursing women can meet their caloric needs during "iftar," the Ramadan sunset meal that breaks the fast, and "suhur," the pre-dawn breakfast many Muslims use to fuel themselves for the fast ahead.
They can't, however, compensate for fluids, which are critical for pregnant and nursing mothers, she said.
"I discourage pregnant women from fasting mostly because they cannot stay hydrated since ours is a complete fast that prohibits even the consumption of water. This puts them at risk for kidney infections, (premature) birth and other complications," Al-Marayati said.
Scholars say the exemption is based on several hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, that exempt pregnant and nursing women from fasting, as well as a verse in the Quran that exempts the sick from fasting.
Interpretations vary, however. The least lenient view holds that pregnant or nursing women should try to fast, but can stop if they feel they are harming themselves or their babies. Others suggest that not accepting "a mercy" exemption from God would be a sin. The most common opinion holds that women can choose according to their own situations.
Many women still decide to fast, some even sneaking fasts behind their husbands' backs. Ayeda Khalid Malik's husband persuaded her to stop fasting during the final six days of last year's Ramadan, shortly after they discovered she was pregnant.
Malik researched the issue but found the answers more confusing than clarifying. If she had to make up the fasts later, she figured she might as well go ahead and fast now with friends and family. This year, Malik intends to fast even as she breastfeeds her three-month old daughter.
"There's so much out there, and I'd just rather be on the safe side," said Malik, 25, of Danvers, Mass.
She also doesn't believe that not taking the exemption is an affront to God. "I don't see God as being so harsh just because I'm doing something out of sheer fear and the fact that I want to be blessed," she said.
Maceo Nafisah Cabrera Estevez, who is eight months into her first pregnancy and facing a due date of Sept. 10, the same day that Ramadan ends, won't be fasting.
"I don't want to do anything that will jeopardize my baby's health," said Estevez, 34, of Oakland, Calif. "It's very logical to me that that's what God would want, giving me a break."