The holy month of Ramadan, which ended yesterday, is a joyous time for observant Muslims, but for many it also involves economic hardship as a result of greater spending coupled with a reduction in income.
This emerges from a survey being conducted for TheMarker at the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis by the institute’s director, Prof. Michal Grinstein-Weiss, in collaboration with Mastercard Israel and Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya.
Seventy-nine percent of respondents, including Israeli Muslims who described themselves as not religious, told the pollsters they observe the dawn-to-dusk fast for the 30 days of Ramadan. According to the survey results, more women fast than men, and the alternative to fasting most favored by secular Muslims is giving charity.
“[Muslim] Arab society in Israel has undergone deep processes of religiosity in recent decades. The fact that 79 percent of this community fasts, including people who are less religious, is not a trivial matter,” says Haddad Haj-Yahya, a co-founder of and partner in NAS Research & Consulting. She holds a doctorate in history from Tel Aviv University and is the director of the Arab Society in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute.
“That women fast more shows the difference in the workforce,” she says. “Women can fast because they work less than men, most of whom are employed in physically demanding sectors.”
The vast majority of those who fast on Ramadan – 89 percent, according to the survey – are in prime working age, between 30 and 49. Just 68 percent of respondents from 18-29 said they fasted, while 83 percent of those 50 and up reported fasting.
Haddad Haj-Yahya says the lower rate of fasting among young adults point to the modernization processes that have taken place in Israeli Muslim society in recent years. And while 94 percent of high school graduates with a matriculation certificate – generally a prerequisite for academic studies – and 88 percent of respondents with a college degree say that they fast, the number drops to about 65 percent for respondents who have not completed high school or who graduated without a bagrut, or matriculation, certificate – presumably due to physically demanding jobs with inflexible hours that don’t allow for long fasts. It should be noted that the Ramadan fast includes abstention from drinking even water.
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The survey data provide a comprehensive picture of the behavior of Muslim Arabs – who account for 80 percent of Israel’s Arab citizens –during the month of Ramadan, and its effects on both individual households and the Israeli economy.
Even though Ramadan is a significant event for Israel’s economy, its effects are not examined by any official body, such as the Finance Ministry, Bank of Israel, Central Bureau of Statistics or Knesset Research and Information Center, nor by private research institutes. In this respect, the survey is a significant breakthrough in understanding the advantages and disadvantages of the month.
The survey was conducted by telephone on April 19-23, and included a representative sample of the adult Arab Muslim population in Israel. Eighty-eight percent of the respondents reported that Ramadan is a month of joy and spiritual uplift, with 81 percent saying they feel unity with their family and community. That said, 44 percent reported experiencing financial difficulty during the month and 21 said they experience stress.
Most of the people who reported economic difficulties during Ramadan are from Israel’s social or geographic periphery: residents of the south, most of them Bedouin (49 percent) and the north (47 percent). The number drops sharply for people living in the center of the country and in Haifa (38 percent and 40 percent, respectively).
When asked, more than half of respondents – 61 percent – said they are not celebrating Ramadan as they have in previous years. When asked why, 16 percent cited higher prices in Israel and 15 percent mentioned the security situation.
Ramadan hard on self-employed
In Israel this year – because the Muslim calendar year is shorter than the Gregorian calendar year, Ramadan begins 10-12 days earlier every year (by the Gregorian calendar) – the daily fast begins at about 4 A.M. and ends at about 7 P.M. Despite the rigors of fasting for 15 hours a day, most Muslims in Israel continue to work, though some may choose to use some of their vacation days during the month.
Lost work days, on both the individual and national levels, are unavoidable during Ramadan. According to analyses of data from the survey carried out by Oren Heller and Yaniv Shlomo, a postdoctoral research associate and a senior fellow at the Social Policy Institute, respectively, Muslim employees in Israel work an average of 1.4 hours less per day during Ramadan. That adds up to 2.1 million fewer work hours for the month (calculated according to 588,000 Muslim employees in Israel’s workforce).
Among survey respondents, 13 percent reported missing about two hours of work a day; 8 percent said they worked an average of at least four fewer hours and another 10 percent reported working an average of one to three fewer hours a day during Ramadan. Among salaried employees, 26 percent of those who work for Muslims and 35 percent of those with Jewish employers reported that the employer deducted some or all of their hours of absence, which affects their wages for the month.
“The fact that a Muslim worker loses 1.4 hours a day requires consideration by the employers. In spite of that, some of them deduct those hours from wages,” says Haddad Haj-Yahya. “The good news is that only a third of Jewish employers deduct from wages – while two-thirds don’t, and that is a welcome trend that didn’t exist a decade ago.”
The income of 17 percent of salaried workers and 38 percent of the self-employed declines during Ramadan, according to their reports. Only 1 percent of salaried workers and 7 percent of the self employed reported that their income increases during the month. Those earning 6,000 to 10,000 shekels ($1,800 to $3,000) a month saw a decline of 30 percent in their income.
‘I can’t visit my sister without a gift’
The Ramadan festivities begin with breaking the fast (iftar), and continue until late at night. Ramadan nights include not only meals, but also visits to friends and relatives, to which one can’t come without gifts. “I can’t come to my sister or any other relative without a gift. That means that you have to distribute many gifts during these days,” says J., who preferred to remain anonymous, and who sometimes fasts, but follows tradition when it comes to hosting and visiting.
The month of Ramadan involves large expenditures that make things difficult for Muslim households. “Think about a seder night that lasts for 30 days,” said one of the those fasting for illustration. Of those polled, 68 percent reported higher expenses before and during Ramadan. The researchers found that there is an increase of 56 percent per household – or 3,500 shekels.
The expenditures are mainly on food, with a 46-percent increase compared to ordinary months, but also include clothing and items for the home, such as furniture. Gifts for family and friends, going to restaurants and places of entertainment, and donations – which are considered obligatory during Ramadan – involve additional expenditures. Among the middle and upper classes there is now a trend of going abroad for the end of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr celebration.
‘Using savings, taking loans’
Arab society still tends to pay in cash rather than with a credit card, although 70 percent have credit cards. The survey indicates that 67 percent of household expenses are paid in cash, yet during Ramadan credit card purchases increase by 25 percent.
So how do you afford an average increase of 56 percent in household expenses? While 54 percent of respondents replied that they manage to cover the additional expense with their regular income, 6 percent said that they use money that they saved during the year for the expenses of this month.
But 10 percent were forced to resort to sources that are likely to lead to a deterioration in their financial situation – such as a bank loan, or help from family, friends or the community, or from charitable organizations. Of them, 7.5 percent reported that the need to ask for outside assistance began in the past year – and that they weren’t forced to do so in previous years.
“The economic stability of Arab society isn’t sky-high, this is a weak and poor population,” says Haddad Haj-Yahya. “The figures prove that people conduct their lives from one Ramadan to the next. That some of them break into savings, take out loans or are helped by family and friends for this month proves the paucity of resources at the disposal of the Arab community, which finds it difficult to deal with non-routine events. The data in the poll demonstrate the economic fragility of the Arab community – and the extent to which it lacks financial strength.”