By Pakinam Amer - When Omniyah Mohammed comes home from her day job as a teacher in Cairo during Ramadan, she is glad that at least the school day is over early.
Still ahead of the middle-aged mother of four is the job of cooking the sumptuous evening feast which ensures much of the fun spirit of the Islamic holy month. Following Muslim tradition, her family often invites relatives, neighbours and friends to share it.
For Mohammed, as for many Muslim women across the world, Ramadan means not just a month of spirituality but also a lot of extra work - with constant juggling between day job, household, preparing the feasts, and observing the religious rituals which include fasting during the day and praying all through the night.
The challenge for Mohammed, she explains, is to get closer to God during Ramadan amid all this clamour.
'I love reading Koran, it really raises my spirit. I really love going to the Tarawih prayers (prayers of comfort) every night,' she says. But throughout the month, she has to struggle to pray as much as she wants or take 'spiritual quality time' for herself, she adds.
'I really wish they would give us a break during the month, so we (women) can fully abide by the religious ritual,' she says.
During Ramadan, the woman is usually the unsung hero. And cooking for the whole family is often not even her only concern. Doing good for others - for Muslims an act greatly rewarded by God especially during Ramadan - is usually a task also handled mostly by women.
Many women, often with their children in tow, attend to visitors in mosques in poor areas. Others enlist in charity activities and community work in hope 'of gaining more thawab', the reward of blessing' for doing good.
Noora Khorshid has both a day job and a community service duty during Ramadan. Together with her friends - also in their early twenties - and relatives they have set up what they call a 'food bank for the poor.'
Beginning weeks before Ramadan, they first visited poor areas to do a rough social assessment, and then set up a plan for the holy month and began to collect money and other donations.
'We distribute food everyday among the fasters in these poor areas, and in the streets. We do it ourselves, sometimes we have men to help. Sometimes, we have to rent a small truck to carry the food for us,' Khorshid says. 'We also buy water dispensers and set them in different places.'
Despite the vast amount of pressure, juggling work, worship and charity efforts, there usually is 'a beautiful spirit', Korshid says: 'We laugh as we work together. It's fun.'
Basma, who did not want to disclose her family name, is another example. A mother of two, a pharmacy owner who gets no help during Ramadan, she manages to cook for everyone including several of the poor in her area.
'I start preparing before Ramadan, because for me what is important is not just to feed those close to me but also to feed the needy and the poor,' she told Deutsche Presse-Agentur, dpa.
By contrast, Heba Hassan, a 23-year-old stay-at-home wife, says she decided not to follow her family's tradition and hold grand feasts. She doesn't even want to be invited herself, she said. Her husband also has no time to help her because of his work as a medical doctor, she said.
'I choose to enjoy Ramadan instead. In general, there is more religious awareness now. I don't waste Ramadan in setting up meals, but in getting closer to God,' she says.
Nevertheless, Hassan says her duties during Ramadan have changed dramatically since she got married less than a year ago. Before, she would spend most of her day studying, watching television and occasionally helping with setting the Ramadan table.
'Now my day routine is different. I am in charge of a household, so I take care of everything,' says Hassan. Being on her own most of the day, Hassan gave more attention to worship and to the kitchen.
'I would wake up at noon, after spending most of the night and dawn praying and reading Koran, and go straight to the kitchen,' the young woman tells dpa as she sits with her legs crossed on the floor of one of Cairo's biggest mosques.
She also has become more observant of Ramadan. 'During Ramadan, I have the Koran on all the time (on radio) especially while I'm working? Either this or I open an Islamic channel to listen to religious sermon.'
Many women agree that - despite the extra commitments, the running-around, and also the sleepless nights - Ramadan is a unique experience for them.
'Despite the endless work, no one can imagine how thrilled I am during Ramadan,' says Khorshid, the active charity volunteer. 'I feel peaceful. With what I am doing, I'm not focusing on me, for once, but on the people and on making them feel good during Ramadan.'
'The worship of Ramadan is what gives me the spiritual push for the months to come,' says Hassan.
© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur