Samar Warsi, Tijana Martin
Before the start of Ramadan last month, Laila Abu-Jazar spent night after night in her Oakville, Ontario, commercial kitchen perfecting more than 1,000 8-ounce jars of cheesecake, including new Ramadan-inspired flavours such as baklava, date and mango as reported by The Globe & Mail. During her three-day stint at the Ramadan Market at the Square One Mall in Mississauga, she sold every jar. But the boost to her business, Laila’s Cheesecake Co., didn’t stop when the market finished. Catering requests and special orders are still pouring in from customers she met at the event.
Ramadan and Eid markets – bazaars typically organized by Muslim women where merchants rent booths to hawk their wares during the month of fasting and prayer – have long been a tradition in Canada’s Muslim community, which currently consists of more than a million people. Historically, these markets centred around low-cost imported goods such as costume jewellery from Pakistan or dates from Saudi Arabia. And while those markets still exist, a more curated Ramadan market has emerged in the last several years featuring locally made artisanal goods that appeal to a younger generation of Muslims tuned into trends on Instagram and Etsy. As a result, the markets, which have been growing in popularity, have become launch pads for female Muslim entrepreneurs.
While Ramadan is a time of reflection and introspection, it is also a time when Muslim spending, on both charity and consumer goods, tends to increase significantly. In Britain, for example, one study found that Ramadan spending was worth more than £200-million ($342-million) to the country’s economy. In Canada, the increasing number of Ramadan and Eid markets over the years tends to suggest a similar trend. Part of the spike in spending can be attributed to preparing for Eid-al-Fitr, also known as the “Festival of Breaking of the Fast,” an important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims at the end of Ramadan – marked by families socializing, wearing new clothes and exchanging gifts.
At Toronto’s Scarborough Town Centre, Eid MRKT turned part of the mall into a Moroccan souk for a 10-day event that featured more than 30 rotating vendors selling things such as scarves, handmade soaps, water-permeable nail polish and greeting cards. Founded by two women, Farhad Khan and Shamima Matadar, the market aims to give shoppers access to things they “can’t just buy at the mall.”
The last weekend of April, the Ramadan Market at Square One Mall sold out for all three days, drawing over 3,000 people who paid $5 each to attend the event. Sudduf Wyne, founder of the Ramadan Market, says the goal is to create an experience by showcasing unique, often handcrafted products in one-of-a kind booths. The event’s target market is Muslim women, especially mothers between the ages of 25-45 who grew up in Canada, have a disposable income and appreciate high-quality products.
Popular items include seasonal decor items that focus on building traditions around Muslim holidays – items such as the Ramadan/Eid tree, a crescent moon-shaped tree that can be decorated with lights and ornaments. Reem Naseem, founder of the Eid Tree Collective, hopes these trees will create excitement and give families an opportunity to bond by decorating together every year. And there is demand. Since launching four weeks ago, Ms. Naseem says she has sold an average of five trees a week, with dozens of inquires from the United States and Britain.
In downtown Edmonton, Ramadan Market YEG was a two-day event featuring around 40 vendors and over 600 attendees. Ebian Ali, one of the co-founders, says the vendors were made up of local artists, designers, painters and makers highlighting their work.
“I attend Christmas markets and it’s great to be able to host non-Muslims for a Ramadan market and bridge that gap,” Ms. Ali says.
For many Muslim women, these Ramadan and Eid markets can be instrumental to testing their products and launching successful businesses.
Ms. Abu-Jazar of Laila’s Cheesecake started her business two years ago by making cheesecakes in her kitchen. She now has a commercial kitchen in Oakville and sells her desserts in a number of bakeries across the Toronto area, the Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton and all three of Nordstrom’s EBar cafés. She credits much of her success to the Ramadan Market, saying it has consistently been her most profitable sales channel. In the last year, the company doubled its sales of cheesecake jars to 10,000.
“There is this generation of people who want something trendy and Instagram-able, but also want to know who is making it and the story behind it,” Ms. Abu-Jazar says.
The story behind the brand is important to many Muslim women creating their own businesses. Mariam Nouser, who founded Toronto-based apparel and beauty brand Infinitely Classic in 2015, is using her own struggle with mental illness to create a brand that is committed to promoting female voices on otherwise taboo topics. “I want to tell a story through my brand and no topic should be off-limits,” she says.
She hopes to use Ramadan and Eid markets to draw attention to her collection of cruelty-free “halal” lip-glosses (i.e., without any pork byproducts) and ethically sourced, body-positive cotton shirts and sweatshirts, which feature Arabic words such as “hope,” “patience” and “faith.”
“Our parents’ generation was all about finding the best possible deal,” Ms. Nouser says, “but I find these curated Ramadan Eid markets attract a crowd who is willing to spend the money on a good-quality product that is made locally.”