How does the Ramadan fast affect tourists traveling to the Imperial Cities, the Sahara Desert and other regions of Morocco during this high holy holiday? Can tourists eat or drink in public during Ramadan? This article should clear up the confusion on this issue for tourists, to explain the most polite solutions for tourist behavior at this time, and to assure tourists that there is no problem with them visiting Morocco during Ramadan.
Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, holidays such as Ramadan advance by approximately ten days with each subsequent year. This means that Ramadan makes a cycle through the entire calendar of twelve months each twenty-some years. This year, Ramadan started on August 12th, 2010 in Morocco. The fast presently starts in Morocco at approximately 4:30 AM, and ends in the evening at approximately 7:30 PM.
Tourists in Morocco during Ramadan often hear that some people are not required to fast because of sickness, or health conditions such as diabetes, as well as women having their menstration. But non-Muslim tourists are often confused about the polite way to behave with Muslims during Ramadan; what tourists are permitted to do, or not do; and tourists wonder which stories they hear are true, or not true.
Morocco’s Ramadan Law:
It IS actually true that Morocco’s laws prohibit “a person commonly known to be Muslim” from “violating the fast in a public place during Ramadan.” It is called the Ramadan Law, and is under Article 222 of the Moroccan Penal Code. (This law also applies to Muslim tourists coming from known Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, if they were to flaunt the fast in public.) The penalties are from one to six months in prison and a fine of up to approximately 100 Euros. The law states that the only Muslims who are exempt from this requirement are children, the elderly, the sick; and pregnant, lactating or menstruating women.
Sometimes one can read about small protests that take place in Morocco against this law. The truth is, while this law is on the books, people are rarely prosecuted. Usually, if there is a token protest, the police do their best to try to prevent the protesters from arriving at the protest location, instead of arresting them.
Remember, it is NOT forbidden by law to EAT during Ramadan (even though it IS socially unacceptable for Muslims who should be fasting), which means that Muslims who decide not to fast in their own homes will incur no penalties (other than sin against God). The law is very specific saying that Muslims “shall not violate the fast in a PUBLIC place.” Keeping the fast is difficult, and becomes much more difficult if people actively break it in front of others who are fasting. Therefore, the reason for this law is two-fold: to make it easier for those who are fasting, as well as to both teach the young, and communicate the idea to all Muslims that breaking the fast is most definitely not socially acceptable. This goes right along with several other laws in Morocco which prohibit certain behavior IN PUBLIC PLACES by Muslims (discussed below).
The whole key here is PUBLIC PLACE. Let’s explore what this means.
Those Excused from Fasting:
Children are not required to fast at all, although older children (8-12) might be encouraged to try it on a couple of special days during the month. But no child is FORCED to fast those days. Those who do usually try hard to get through the day because it gives them the feeling of being “grown up.” They see the adults doing it, and they want to be part of that adult world, to feel respected and admired for doing so.
Younger children would never be encouraged to fast, even on those one or two special days. They are still growing and Islam clearly recognizes that fasting is not good for their growing bodies. If you go to a semi-private location, such as a swimming pool at a private club, you will find all the Muslim mothers feeding their children during the day, and no one objects to this. But they are not eating out on the public street. Muslim mothers certainly feed their children at home during the day, as well.
The elderly DO fast. Elderly people fast unless they are in extremely poor health. In many cases, doctors even advise them not to fast, but many of them do it anyway. They do it because they feel there is moral value in fasting, and in many cases, it is a case of self-respect. Some very elderly or infirm people give up fasting, but very rarely.
Sick (or injured) people are not to fast. The question becomes how sick or injured one must be. If blood comes out of one’sbody, such as if someone cuts themself in the kitchen with a knife accidentally, that would invalidate their fast for that day. But the question is how much. Suppose a man gets a tiny knick from his razor, is that enough to invalidate the fast? Supposedly not. But since that becomes questionable depending upon the size of the knick, many Muslim men shave in the evening during Ramadan, just in case.
People with serious health conditions such as diabetes can fast and are encouraged to do so if their illness is not severe and they have it properly under control. Those with more advanced or severe diabetes are often told by doctors that they should not fast, yet some of them do anyway. It seems to be a question of pride (or even showing off to others that they “can” do it) and maintaining respect both in their own eyes and from others, particularly if they are not old. Some diabetics insist on fasting and even fall into comas because of it, yet continue to fast anyway. Most Muslims, if questioned about these people insist that they most definitely should not be fasting.
People who are just a little bit sick (a light cold, headache, even sore throat, or ear infection) still have to fast. If someone had a fever, they would be excused from fasting. Malingering, when someone is just very slightly ill or not feeling their best is definitely not an acceptable excuse.
Pregnant women are not supposed to fast, but in fact, many do. This is because pregnant women are supposed to make up the fasting days later in the year on their own. The explanation given by some Moroccan women for fasting while pregnant is that, “I would not be able to make up all those days on my own.” However, this behavior is most definitley not condoned by Islam.
Lactating women are not supposed to fast either, and are also required to make up the days on their own.
Menstruating women are not required to fast. Most women find these days a welcome break during the middle of fasting. However, if they are working in a company with mixed Moroccan and foreign workers, they will not join others in the lunchroom who are not fasting, even if they themselves are eating during those days; instead they wait, and eat at home. The reason is interesting. They say that if a man at their workplace sees them eating, he will know it is their time of the month. They say they don’t like their male co-workers knowing this personal information! Therefore, they don’t eat at work. They must also make up those fasting days later in the year.
There is one guide book about Morocco which says something which is completely wrong. It says that in the days before Ramadan, you start to see some of the women and older people fasting a few days before Ramadan, in order to “practice” and be habituated when Ramadan starts. This reasoning is wrong. What IS correct is that they are making up missed days from the year before, as those days need to be completely made up before the new Ramadan fast begins (or they are answerable to God for each day not made up). Some elderly people could be making up days they missed. A few, extremely devout people do fast a few extra days, as they feel they will earn “extra points” with God for doing a few extra days of fasting.
About Public Spaces in Morocco:
The Ramadan Law is not the only law relating to public space in Morocco.
A similar law (and similarly confusing to many tourists) is about alcohol. In places like Agadir on the boardwalk next to the beach, or in bars located in other cities, there is sometimes an outdoor section where clients can sit and order drinks. In some locations, tourists can order a beer or glass of wine and drink it while seated in the outdoor section. While Muslims can also order a beer or glass of wine (except during Ramadan or other Muslim holdiays when it is strictly prohibited), they must sit inside to drink it. Those Muslims who are sitting outside are only drinking coffee or other non-alcoholic drinks.
Is this hypocrisy? Most tourists think so. However, Moroccans feel it is proper because being a Muslim country it is more offensive to Muslims in the street to see other Muslims consuming alcohol than it is for them to see non-Muslims consuming it. It is a bit like vulgar words being bleeped out on broadcast American TV. Everyone knows they are saying vulgar words, but at least Americans don’t have to hear those words. It’s a similar situation. Muslims in the street know that others are inside consuming alcohol, but at least they don’t have to see other Muslims doing it.
The Ramadan Law has a similar reasoning. People can eat if they want to, but if you’re Muslim, you are just forbidden from doing so in PUBLIC.
A Guide for Tourist Behavior During Ramadan:
Understanding these factors, what should non-Muslim tourists do? Out of respect, they should follow similar behavior as Muslims who would be diabetic, or ill, or pregnant.
These Muslims would eat at home. If they were sick while out somewhere, yet needed to eat or drink, they would go in a private place where no one would see them (a few people might go into a restroom if there were no other place, but only as a last resort). Very few restaurants would be open during the day, but tourists would find a few, primarily in hotels. Both Muslims and tourists could buy water at a shop, but should not just open it and drink it in front of everyone. Instead, they should find a place to drink privately, not in public. (One Moroccan Muslim man was attacked in Fes two years ago by civilian vigilantes for drinking water in the medina street, arrested, and subsequently released when his family proved he was diabetic. But it’s clear he was pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and would have known it. He could easily have explained in advance he was diabetic, and asked anyone if there was a private place where he could sip his water.) So this is no reason for tourists to be alarmed.
If a tourist and were openly eating and drinking during Ramadan, people would most likely just give him dirty looks, understanding that he was a tourist. But the polite and respectful thing to do would be for him to eat and drink well before going out. It is advisable for tourists to take water in their bag, by all means, but just find a private place to drink it. If a tourist needs to eat, he / she shouldn’t do it in public. It’s perfectly acceptable for tourists to eat in any restaurant you find that is open, and these are most likely to be found in hotels or known tourist locations.
Ramadan can actually be a very interesting time to visit a Muslim country. After dark, families go out late, and plenty of interesting things go on until quite late in the evening. Just be considerate of people during this month. The Ramadan Law is actually just asking (and ensuring) that Muslims also continue to treat each other respectfully.
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