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When I was growing up in the United Arab Emirates, my closet featured sensible shoes: sneakers, Mary Janes. But during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, my mother would take my sister and I shopping for a pair of sparkly gold or silver heels to go with our traditional Pakistani outfits for Eid, the holiday that marks the end of the fasting period. I’d insist on what must have seemed like towering heels to my 7-year-old self, and she’d pick the least injury-inducing pair.
Over two decades later, Eid is my least favorite holiday. Yet every Ramadan I find myself ferreting out long tunics that can pass muster at Iftars, the post-fast meal, and on Eid, I’m part grinch, part 7-year-old, taking selfies in a traditional outfit paired with sparkly heels.
For the observant, Ramadan is a month of prayer, fasting, and reflection. It is marked by millions in Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia in the Middle East to the southeast Asian countries of Indonesia and Malaysia, and by Muslim communities around the world. Ramadan and Eid customs, cultures, and cuisines vary, and there’s no one “Muslim” festive dress code — in the Middle East it could be kaftans or embroidered tunics, in Bangladesh it’s saris. But what is common across cultures, whether you’re a practicing Muslim or not, is that Ramadan and Eid call for wearing your traditional best.
When I was a teenager, that meant one, maybe two special outfits for Eid. Now, in an era of consumerism and #ootd-inspired anxiety, plus the transformation of Ramadan into a month of heavy-duty socializing, in many places women have to build a whole new wardrobe for Ramadan as well as Eid.
The challenge isn’t just striking the right note between modesty, tradition, and style, but doing that while not blowing your year’s budget on clothes or showing up in your standard festive outfit. It’s further compounded by economic pressures — and the weather. This year, Ramadan falls in June; people will be fasting for over 10 hours and dressing up while temperatures climb above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the truly dedicated, planning what you’ll wear throughout Ramadan starts weeks in advance. And so on a weekday afternoon in late April — a month before the beginning of Ramadan — I walked into an exhibition space in Dubai with abaya-clad women carrying Hermès and Dior bags who were there to start their shopping for Ramadan.
Inside, the upscale Dubai boutique Symphony was hosting its kick-off Ramadan sale and charity event. There were booths from dozens of labels — including exclusive capsule collections for Ramadan by Antonio Berardi, Zero + Maria Cornejo, and Alexis Mabille. On offer were flowing kaftans in silks and pastels and abayas detailed with beading and subtle accents, all priced between 1,000 and 6,000 dirhams ($272 to $1,633).
“In Dubai, they really like minimalism, [they’re] not really into prints,” said the store’s buyer, Farah Mounzer, though in previous years Ramadan collections here have featured embroidery and prints. “This is what we've noticed at Symphony and we’ve tried to accommodate this.”
Ayesha al-Falasi, one of the Hermès bag–toting women I’d spotted in the elevator, was standing outside the changing area when I approached her a few hours later. A Patek Philippe watch sparkled on her wrist, and she was wearing an abaya by DAS Collection, a Dubai-based label. (“You’re a stranger!” she trilled when I asked her age.)
“I’m going to buy at least four to five things,” said al-Falasi, who lives in Dubai and had no clear budget. “I like black abayas in thick fabric.”
As I walked around the Symphony exhibit watching women give their measurements and follow assistants carrying armfuls of hangers to the changing area, I understood why women feel compelled to shop in Ramadan. There’s so much to buy for: The social calendar has evolved from a quiet, family-only time to a month-long marathon of multiple Iftars, shopping events, and coffee dates with friends, relatives, and colleagues. In the Gulf, there are late-night social fetes in specially designed tents. The endless rounds of socializing aren’t over by the time of the last fast: Eid is another three-day bout of lunches, dinners, and social calls.
Online stores and marketers also push the idea of the necessity of a whole new wardrobe for the season. Net-a-Porter sent out a ‘Get ready for Ramadan’ blast in mid-May; its Ramadan edit features pants by Gucci and full-sleeved dresses in white and black, and a range of gold accessories. Ahead of Ramadan, the Islamic fashion retailer Modanisa was offering a free abaya on orders over $75. It now has a curated section for ‘Iftar Events.’ The Modist also has a Ramadan section on its site featuring exclusive pieces by designers like Sandra Mansour and Mary Katrantzou, and a campaign shot in collaboration with Somali-American model Halima Aden.
Online shopping is on the rise in Ramadan: Last year, the retailer Souq.com reported a 15 percent increase in online shopping in Saudi Arabia during the fasting period. An analysis of e-commerce transactions from Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia showed a 128 percent spike during Ramadan in 2015. Analysts at Google reported a surge in beauty-related searches during the fasting month: “Midway through Ramadan, we see an acceleration in searches for hair care (18 percent increase), makeup (8 percent rise), and fragrances (22 percent increase), finally peaking around Eid.”
It’s hard to estimate how much women are spending — wherever I look at the Symphony sale, women are either holding large shopping bags or having their measurements taken for orders. “Maybe 10,000 dirhams ($2,700)?” the designer Faissal el-Malak, who was exhibiting kaftans in traditional Middle Eastern woven fabrics, hesitatingly ventured a guess. At the booth for the Emirati designer Shatha Essa, a plain, no-frills dress priced at 500 dirhams ($136) was a popular gift purchase, according to its manager, Munaza Ikram. “We’ve got a lot of people coming in who want to give this away as a Ramadan present,” Ikram said. “So one person comes in and says ‘I want three of these, four of these.”
Reina Lewis, a professor at the London College of Fashion, UAL, has been studying Muslim fashion for a decade. She isn’t surprised by the idea that women are now consuming more for Ramadan — because that’s what everyone is doing. “I would imagine that this is a correlation of consumer culture and fast fashion with different kinds of community and religious practices,” said Lewis, the author of Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures. “In many parts of the world, and certainly in the affluent global north, everyone has more clothes than they did 50 years ago.”
Beyond consumerism, there might be another reason why people get pulled into Ramadan shopping sprees. In her book Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, advertising executive and author Shelina Janmohamed notes that “In Ramadan, the suspension of ‘normal’ life in lieu of fasting alongside all other Muslim friends and family means that the volume is turned up on Muslim identity.” Janmohamed observes that a sense of community is enhanced when people get together for religious and social rituals — whether that’s visiting the mosque or sharing meals.
If Ramadan and Eid shopping seems like serious business in Muslim-majority countries, the spirit is just as strong in second- and third-generation immigrant communities around the world, too. For Shamaila Khan, a 41-year-old born-and-bred Londoner who has family in Pakistan and the UK, the cost of Ramadan and Eid shopping for both yourself and others, combined with hosting Eid parties, can run into the hundreds of pounds. During Ramadan, Khan’s family gathers on the weekends for Iftars, and before Eid, her friends have a festive pre-Eid party, featuring the same elements found in the bazaars of Pakistan. Khan hosted last year, pulling out all the stops, including inviting a henna artist to paint women’s hands.
On a visit to Pakistan last December, Khan picked up a bunch of new clothes that she’s going to pull out for the upcoming Ramadan social season. “I have 15 new outfits in my wardrobe that I’m going to take out for Iftars and for Eid,” she said.
Ramadan and Eid outfits can often just be one-time purchases. In Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates, abayas retain their utility after Ramadan, and kaftans might get pressed into use as daywear. But they won’t be worn for weddings, when Arab women wear glitzy cocktail dresses and gowns. The Internet doesn’t forget, either: Once an outfit has been showcased to friends — and Instagrammed with a hashtag like #mandatoryeidpicture — it might be relegated to the back of the closet.
Even though Khan is in London, the fashion game is just as strong as it would be in Pakistan. “Before, no one would know if you repeated an outfit, but you can’t get away with it in the UK now!” Khan laughed. “It’s got to be new. I have a Sana Safinaz [outfit] I bought a couple of years ago that I’ve worn once. But because it is a few years old and it’s been everywhere [online], I can’t wear it. And I’ve got quite a lot of cousins, so there is an unspoken competition as well! Everyone wants to wear the latest trends.”
Not all Muslim women transform their wardrobes with this dedication — for reasons of practicality, economics, and culture. In countries like Jordan, while women buy new clothes for Eid, they’re not as enamored by the idea of shopping for Ramadan, and the social calendar isn’t as intense as it is among the affluent Gulf cities like Dubai.
But women in Jordan still make concessions to tradition. “I was surprised that even a woman who doesn’t wear the hijab would want to cover themselves,” said Elena Romanenko, a Ukrainian stylist-turned-designer who lives in Amman, Jordan.
When we met at a Starbucks in Amman on a hot May afternoon, Romanenko was wearing a robe over a buttoned-up shirt, bedazzled jeans, and heels, and her hair was wrapped in a cotton scarf, turban-style. It’s the kind of outfit she’ll wear to the 20-something events she has to attend with her husband's large family during Ramadan. “More than 50 percent of my customers don’t wear hijab, but they buy this kind of abaya,” the 34-year-old said, gesturing to her “abaya” — a silk robe with a floral pattern. “Because even without the hijab, [a woman] wants to cover herself. She doesn’t need to wear something long underneath, she can wear a shirt and pants.”
Romanenko is a convert to Islam, and began designing these robe-like abayas in bright colors and floral and animal prints after being frustrated by the lack of mid-range modest — and fashionable — clothing options in Amman.
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But even if the clothes are available, that doesn’t mean everyone can buy them. Economic conditions significantly impact how women shop and budget for clothes — and nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned how much more expensive Eid outfits are now compared to a few years ago. In Jordan, where inflation clocked in at 4.6 percent in February, it is increasingly difficult to buy a Ramadan wardrobe. “I’m a little concerned, because I don’t think women are ready to spend more than 200 Jordanian dinar ($281), maybe even less,” Romanenko said as she was wondering how to price her abaya collection. “The economic situation is changing,” she continued, a tone of worry in her voice. In earlier years, Ramadan pop-up shops and bazaars in Amman would sell out quickly, she recalled. Now it’s considered a success if you can move half the stock.
Women who don’t spend money on a Ramadan wardrobe might still splash out on an Eid outfit. “I tend to wear what I already have [in Ramadan]”, said Nur Diyana binte Md Nasir, 29, who works at a hospital in Singapore. “It's either a long dress or a blouse with a long skirt or pants. My attire remains the same; something in pastel colors that I'm most comfortable in.” For Eid, she spends around $200 on new clothes — like the baju kurung with lace, traditional attire for Malays and the hijab.
Dalia Abulyazed Said, a 30-year-old who runs a start-up in Cairo, doesn’t shop for Ramadan largely because she finds the prices of clothes in Egypt to be “ridiculous.” She wears outfits she already owns for social engagements during Ramadan — she’s usually invited to at least four family Iftars and 10 non-family events. “Since this year Ramadan is in the summer, I will probably go and buy some new clothes,” she said.
At the end of the day, women are — reluctantly or willingly — drawn into the Ramadan and Eid shopping cycle, especially in Muslim countries where there’s an air of festivity in markets and malls. There’s even a crossover of trends from the mainstream — this Ramadan, kaftans and long tunics come in millennial pink.
Ramadan shopping has all the makings of a self-perpetuating cycle. As Ramadan becomes more commercialized and marketers enforce the idea of Ramadan-ready wardrobes, women feel like they need more outfits, and so more retailers market collections to Muslim women. And with more designers and stores pushing Ramadan and Eid collections, there’s an endless visual stream to impel one to shop. As Lewis notes, after years of feeling ignored by the global fashion industry, Muslim women are often pleased by international brands taking note of Ramadan and Eid. But there’s an element of “be careful what you wish for.”
“What does it mean when the religious parts of your identity — and by that I mean your ethnic-religious identity, not only piety — become commodified?” Lewis said. “Are women going to feel they’re priced out of piety because they’re not wearing fancy new clothes for every day of Ramadan?” For some women, that may already be happening. For others, the Ramadan-Eid industrial complex continues to lure them in, one pastel-hued kaftan at a time.