Another year, another Ramzan and many wishes for us all to have a blessed, peaceful and happy one. Only somehow, one doesn’t quite think that the government trusts us to. Why else would they pass a bill like the Ehteram e Ramzan (Amended) one, where now if you are caught eating in public, you can be fined and go to jail for three months? As if it weren’t enough to let sleeping bills lie (the original was the gift of Zia ul Haq, passed in 1981), our extremely busy and conscientious senators decided that it needed some gussying up, and behold! Now not only will non-fasters be shamed as per usual cultural practice, you can also not fast in prison! What good Muslims we will all be, when we reach a state of holy nirvana: when you fast, nobody will tempt you. I guess nobody got the memo about an absence of temptation not being the same as goodness.

You see, this is why senators have to be at least BA-pass, and not with a convenient fake degree. The assumption is that the barest level of college education might mean that you actually used your brain for something other than calculating how many samosas you could get from the canteen in your allowance, or how many classes you could skip without being expelled. One could suggest, for example, that goodness is only really good when there is a choice between good and evil, and one actively chooses to do good. When there is temptation, and one knowingly turns away from it. If you’re running a race with toddlers, then it isn’t a big deal if you’re the first at the finish line. If you’re fasting and someone eats a sandwich in front of you, then is your resolve tested so badly that you need legal recompense? Does that not suggest that the problem is not, therefore, with the person who isn’t fasting but with you, whose steadfastness to your religious duty is shamefully weak?

When we speak of ehteram, or respect, we automatically assume a personal stance: the respect is due to us, the ones who are fasting. This is based on a premise of moral superiority: that people who are observant of this religious duty are better than the ones who are not. This kind of smugness is exasperating even on the best of days and in the most uniform of communities, but consider an entire country. Consider minorities in your country, who are not Muslims. Consider the ill. Children. Menstruating women. People who aren’t fasting because they just don’t feel like it. Do they not deserve the respect we demand for ourselves? Surely for any expectation we have from others, we are also then ethically bound to extend the same courtesy in order to be worthy at all of any special consideration. If you want your fasting to be respected then you in turn have to respect the other person’s right to not be fasting, for whatever reason. There is no space for a moral high ground, and our religion is abundantly clear that there is no compulsion in it. It is not our business to judge another’s faith, or our perception of a deficiency of it.

One wonders whether our elected representatives either have a lot of time on their hands or they really think so little of us, their constituents. For whom is this bill, really? Who amongst us is so small of heart and rickety of resolve that anyone eating or drinking in front of us gives us the collywobbles? A lot, that’s who. And that comes from our position of privilege. It’s all very well to wag fingers and tut, but of whom are we being so disapproving? Labourers, who work long, hot hours for minimum wage building our houses and shopping malls? Minorities, who are already in perpetual danger for their life and safety? Sick people, who need to take medicine through the day or stay hydrated for their kidneys? Children, who now can’t swig from their water bottles inside a bakery for fear of the bakery people being arrested? It’s shameful, it truly goes against everything Ramzan is supposed to teach us. The whole point of fasting, of abstaining from food and drink, is to create empathy for the other and instill a sense of unity amongst us. It’s supposed to help us realize how actions matter more than words. We are the same people who seat maids at separate tables and don’t buy them a meal and tuck into expensive gelato while our driver and guard whisks us around town. We are the same people who routinely eat and drink in front of the less privileged all the time, throughout the year, with self-centred aplomb. And then when it’s our turn to be thirsty and hungry—a temporary, voluntary condition— we immediately throw a crybaby tantrum that targets the poorest or most vulnerable people in society. It’s shocking how we are so entitled as a people that we think that ehteram only applies to us, that respect is due only to a certain segment of privileged people and the rest should all fall in line dutifully. When we become minorities abroad we demand the right to observe our religion the way we decide, to live freely and without interference of the state. So what switch flips when we are home? How does it become so easy to be indignant about headscarf bans or non-halal fast food abroad in the same breath as punishing people for not fasting? It is all sides of the same, oppressive coin.

 

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com