Ramzan in Pakistan is always a time of contradictions. Fasting is ostensibly meant to be a test of both patience and piety, with those who do it being expected to demonstrate moderation in their behavior; in addition to all of the prayer and worship, those who fast are told to control their tempers, mind their tongues, and be respectful to others. Appetites of all kinds are meant to be curbed, and excess is actively discouraged.
Instead, what usually happens in Ramzan is an orgy of narcissism, entitlement, and unrestrained gratification. It begins, of course, on television, when the days leading up to the holy month witness the broadcasting of advertisements geared towards an activity as old as religion itself, namely profiting off belief. From cooking oil to washing detergent, ceiling fans to insurance policies, and soft drinks to cars, products and their marketing campaigns undergo a complete overhaul as corporations trip over themselves to somehow portray their goods in a more ‘pious’ light. Suddenly, brands known for selling aspirational visions of upward mobility, signified by the adoption of, for example, western clothing and cultural idioms, switch the jeans and rock music for white kurtas and devotional singing. Companies that may have previously won plaudits for radically suggesting women may be more than unpaid and passive domestic workers suddenly replace suits and witty retorts with dupattas and docility, selling caffeinated beverages and frozen foods using scenes of domestic bliss replete with, again, white kurtas, skullcaps, prayer beads, and pliant wives/daughters whose place in the broader narrative suggests a life of uncomplaining and unquestioning domestic drudgery is practically an article of religious faith. Amidst all of this reinforcement of tradition, the underlying message is clear; spend more, consume more, want more, and buy more. If the television is to be believed, it is consumption, more than anything else, that brings a person closer to God in Ramzan.
It would be bad enough if this stopped with advertisements selling the idea that buying a fridge is practically an act of worship, or that the ingredients going in to a sugary drink are as pure as the intentions of those who fast. However, the craze for consumption goes well beyond this. In all of Pakistan’s cities, restaurants engage in a frenzied free-for-all, seeking to entice hungry customers with ever more ridiculous deals and bargains. Gluttony is the order of the day, as social media is flooded with pictures of menus promising potential diners a cornucopia of culinary delights; all-you-can-eat buffets, set menus with dozens of items, and exotic delicacies from around the world, all are available in Ramzan, and all inevitably lead to crushing stampedes of people blocking the roads as they struggle to make it to their restaurant of choice in time for seher and iftar. It is often noted that Ramzan has the paradoxical effect of causing people to gain weight, and it is not difficult to see why; for very large number of people, the small act of self-abnegation involved in not eating for twelve hours justifies all manner of excess when the fast comes to an end. That this might defeat the entire purpose of fasting is a point that is often missed as yet more skewers of meat are hastily shoveled into ravenous mouths.
The sense of entitlement does not end there. Apparently, fasting is also an excuse for all kinds of poor behavior that might otherwise not be tolerated. If you feel that you’ve been slighted by someone, or have had to experience something you disagreed with, hunger is apparently all the justification that is needed to yell, scream, and devolve into fits of apoplectic rage. When not shouting at one another, people can also be found lolling around aimlessly, listlessly counting the hours, minutes, and seconds until they can gorge themselves on the delights described above. It is almost axiomatic that no one in the Land of the Pure can have any reasonable expectation of seeing any real work done after noon during Ramzan, with it being expected that the act of fasting is sufficient explanation for a lack of activity. The personal decision to fast, presumably taken to affirm an individual’s relationship with God, is converted into an inherently public display with collective consequences. It is not enough for an individual to fast. Instead, all of society must know that they are fasting, and must bend over backwards to accommodate that choice.
This principle is taken to its extreme when considering how public behavior is policed during Ramzan. It has always been darkly ironic that a country that is so overwhelmingly Muslim, and in which Islam has a significant influence on policy and the public discourse, should be so paranoid about potential threats to Islam. The protection of Islam is often invoked to justify draconian ‘religious’ laws, the persecution of minorities, and the pursuit of particular political agendas but in Ramzan, an added manifestation of this tendency is the ban on eating in public places. The logic that underpins this measure assumes that the very sight of someone eating something would place undue and unnecessary strain on those who have chosen to fast, and that anyone who is fasting would be reduced to a quivering, piteous mass of flesh that would either succumb to temptation or bravely continue to resist it in the face of such open instigation. In the past, the ban on public eating has led to people being prosecuted and even beaten in the streets. Yet, it is perhaps interesting to note that similar bans do not exist in the rest of the Muslim world, let alone in the West and elsewhere, and hundreds of millions of Muslims somehow still manage to make it through Ramzan without too much trouble. One can only conclude that either people in other parts of the world have much stronger faith than the denizens of the Land of the Pure, or the ban and similar measures are simply unnecessary. It is precisely this kind of introspection that unfortunately seems to be missing throughout the Holy Month.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.