The difference between fear and respect is that the former is forced whereas the latter comes from one’s heart – It cannot be forcefully earned. ‘Ehtaram’ or respect, therefore, cannot be put p in the form of an ordinance and made a legal term. The Ehtaram-e-Ramzan Ordinance, yet another gift given to Pakistan by General Zia, prohibits anyone who ‘according to the tenets of Islam is under an obligation to fast’ from eating or drinking in a public place. A public place, according to this ordinance, has been defined as any ‘hotel, restaurant, canteen, house, room, tent, enclosures, road lane, bridge or other place to which the public have access.’ This makes it very clear that during the month of Ramzan, nobody is permitted to eat or drink where they can be seen.
While many may not see any flaw with this ordinance, there are numerous issues that keep arising simply because of its presence. On Saturday, I came across a social media post about how an elderly Hindu man was beaten up by a policeman for eating at 6:30 pm, roughly 40 minutes before sunset. This man, who was not under the obligation to fast not only because of his religion but also because of his age, was beaten up because he ate some food that he received as charity from someone. This man, who had probably been hungry for a long time, was beaten up because he ate food not in a crowded street or market, but outside his own home.
While it may seem like this is an incident that can only happen in smaller cities which have people with more orthodox beliefs, similar incidents happen all across the country. Despite the fact that the situation usually doesn’t get aggravated to the extent that people are physically assaulted, they do get harassed in every other possible way during the month of Ramzan for not fasting. I remember how peer pressure in school would make me lie to my friends about fasting when in reality I wasn’t. Many years later, I have realized that I’ve found myself in the same situation not only through school when we were young, but through university and professionally too.
There is no doubt about the fact that fasting is indeed a form of worship that takes a lot of effort. It is very difficult to abstain from drinking water in this scorching heat. There is absolutely no doubt about the fact that people who fast during this month deserve appreciation. However, this does not entitle them to belittle those who cannot fast irrespective of whether they don’t fast due to a valid reason or they just choose not to fast.
There are hundreds of thousands of people like the old man who do not follow Islam. There are hundreds of thousands of people who do follow Islam but simply cannot fast. Why does it enrage people so much if someone else chooses to eat or drink during Ramzan? Why is it that the Chinese ban on fasting in certain regions of the country has sparked outrage amongst Pakistani Muslims yet similar atrocities are practiced here? The very champions of ‘freedom to practice one’s religion’ are the ones judging their fellow countrymen for not fasting.
I have seen people getting criticized and even insulted beyond belief for asking whether any restaurants or home based caterers will be providing lunch during Ramzan. I’ve seen offices turn into prison cells for those who cannot or do not fast. I have seen grownups lie like 5th graders about fasting only to escape the judgmental remarks that come after one tells that they are not fasting. I have seen people go to great lengths to convince an anemic person that if they tried just a little harder, they’d be able to fast. It saddens me to see that no matter how many good deeds a person does, as long as he or she doesn’t fast in Ramzan, he will continue being considered an infidel by all those around him.
The policeman in Sindh mercilessly beat up the old man for eating because he realizes that the law, as well as the people, encourage this action of his. He knows that for trying to impose Islam on others, he will be hailed as a hero. He knows that nobody will stop him for committing an atrocity in the name of religion. That policeman in Sindh is more than just an ordinary man- he is a representation of many of us. It is time we changed that.